The end of Plan B Covid restrictions in England can make it tricky to forget the draconian scale of government intervention and restrictions during the height of the coronavirus lockdowns. Specifically, indoor mixing between households was banned on numerous occasions, not least given Covid-19 spreads far more easily indoors than outside. Naturally, this forced millions of sacrifices to be made around the country, as people put their lives on hold to protect the elderly and clinically vulnerable.
A widespread amount of public outrage has been generated by learning that, without question, those working inside Downing Street were not adhering to the specific regulations required of everyone else. In the wake of this public backlash, the Sue Gray report was initiated to try and discern whether rules were broken by those who write them.
Working in person during the pandemic was allowed, with Downing Street staff being classed as essential workers. Even Johnson’s most ardent critics would find it hard to argue that running the country during a pandemic didn’t count as essential. Yet a repeated breach of rules throughout – individuals from numerous households not simply being together for work but partaking in different social gatherings has fuelled public and political condemnation of the Prime Minister.
Dubbed ‘partygate’, the revelations over the last few months of parties inside Downing Street during the various lockdown measures, precisely when such parties were illegal for the rest of the nation, sparked bemusement and condemnation in equal measure for such flagrant breaches of Covid-19 restrictions.
Though the revelations of parties have only been in the public domain for a few months, it’s easy to forget how the story originated. A mention of another party can almost sound trivial, such is the volume that have taken place. But it is important not to forget the specific gatherings, not least as a dozen currently face investigation by the Metropolitan Police for breaching Covid-19 rules.
The Daily Mirror broke the story of three Downing Street Christmas parties taking place in November and December 2020
In the run-up to Christmas 2021, the return of Christmas parties after their blanket cancellation in 2020 was on the public agenda. Despite the Omicron variant causing many organisations to take precautions and cancel their parties for a second year running, the country felt far more open. It was with this in mind that, on 30 November 2021, the Daily Mirror broke the story of three Downing Street Christmas parties taking place in November and December 2020, when London faced tier three restrictions.
Though the government initially denied the allegations, a video leaked to ITV News showed Allegra Stratton, the then spokeswoman for COP-26 President Alok Sharma, dismissing rumours of the parties in a humorous manner in a practice press conference from December 2020. Stratton in 2021 had been due to begin daily live broadcast conferences for the government before the idea was scrapped. The footage remained however and resulted in her tearful resignation. It was at this time the Metropolitan Police initially said that, due to lack of evidence, they would not be investigating the parties.
Though Boris Johnson let his fury at the video of Stratton be known in December 2021, he did not take any personal contrition or responsibility for the events. Instructing Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, to conduct an inquiry into three Whitehall gatherings, Case had to abandon his leadership after less than two weeks after a party in his own office in December 2020 was discovered. Details of the revelations were widely blamed as a contributing factor for the Conservatives losing the North Shropshire by-election on 16th December 2021.
This was how the famous Sue Gray report emerged. Gray is the Second Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office and a longtime Whitehall expert. Her remit became investigating the different parties that had taken place to discover what had taken place. At all times, she made clear her purpose was not to make a legal decision – that would be up to the police. Similarly, as a civil servant, Gray would not seek to judge whether the Prime Minister should be removed – that would be for his party and the country.
A photo emerged of the Downing Street gardens with numerous staffers enjoying the hot weather in May 2020
Though reports of parties briefly subsided over Christmas, they returned with a bang in the new year. A photo emerged of the Downing Street gardens with numerous staffers enjoying the hot weather in May 2020. Alcohol was being consumed and so the argument was made that work could not take place. With a leaked ITV News email from the Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary Martin Reynolds inviting Downing Street staffers to this gathering emerging, any ambiguity about whether the event was work had suddenly been removed.
Besides, other key workers like doctors, nurses, teachers, supermarket staff and other key workers were legally banned from unwinding together in a green space after their shift had ended. Why should the situation have been any different for those in Downing Street? It was this email that shifted much political opinion, with over half of the Conservatives’ Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) calling on Johnson to step down, alongside opposition politicians.
Further accusations of parties similarly emerged the evening before the funeral of Prince Philip in April 2021. Though the Prime Minister was not present and at Chequers, revelations about a suitcase full of alcohol being traipsed to Downing Street, alongside the swing of the Prime Minister’s child being broken painted a picture of a central government in chaos.
January 2022 legally saw a u-turn from the Metropolitan Police, who suddenly announced they would be investigating a number of the alleged parties. This bought into question both uncertainty over the reason for the police’s u-turn and, more crucially, what it would mean for Sue Gray’s inquiry. Gray was already dealing with an increasing in-tray as more revelations about parties unfolded, so the prospect of a criminal investigation only increased the difficulty of such investigations. Indeed, the sheer farcical nature of the Downing Street parties came upon the Prime Minister apparently being ambushed with a cake on his birthday in 2020.
Former Brexit Secretary David Davis argued Johnson needed to go.
Having initially said Gray’s report should not prejudice the police inquiry, the then Commissioner of the Met Police Cressida Dick asked for analysis and revelations within Gray’s report about the Downing Street parties under investigation to not be published. Arguments were raised that releasing information about the investigations could prejudice interviews and corroborating the location of different individuals.
Indeed, given that 300 photos and 500 pages related to Downing Street parties had subsequently been passed to the Metropolitan Police, it was clear lots of information remained under-wraps. The revelations had been enough for some on Johnson’s own side, with former Conservative MP for Bury South Christian Wakeford defecting to Labour. Similarly, former Brexit Secretary David Davis argued Johnson needed to go. This had the strange effect of uniting the Conservative party and quelling a potential imminent vote of confidence in his leadership by Conservative MPs.
The eventual Gray update on 31 January 2022 was only 12 pages long, with a considerable number of pages being left deliberately blank. Gray was clear to stress this report should not be seen as her final verdict on what had taken place in Downing Street. Revealing 12 out of 16 parties throughout 2020 and 2021 were under investigation by the Metropolitan Police, she criticised the culture of drinking in Downing Street which made gatherings like this more likely.
Attempting to offer a magnanimous statement to the House of Commons about the report, Johnson was widely seen to have further damaged his reputation by making untrue accusations about Labour Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer failing to prosecute Jimmy Saville when Director of Public Prosecutions. This led to the resignation of his previously staunchly loyal Head of Policy Munira Murza directly because of his refusal to retract this accusation.
The Prime Minister’s future remains deeply uncertain. The ramifications of ‘partygate’ continue into March with the Metropolitan Police announcing 20 people had been fined in relation to Covid-19 rule breaking. Trying to reshape his top team and offer a new direction, he still awaits the verdict of the public Sue Gray’s entire report. But it is perhaps behind him where the Prime Minister must look most carefully, for it is his fellow colleagues who will decide whether he remains leader and continues to hold the keys to No 10 Downing Street.