What we know about the alleged Downing Street parties so far
After a series of reports late last year about alleged Downing Street and Westminster parties at times when strict Covid-19 restrictions were in force, the story has once again shot to the top of the political agenda with new reports of events in May 2020 and April 2021.
Much of the coverage so far has been based on political journalists’ off-the-record sources or leaks, so we don’t yet know the full story of what happened. The government has made a number of statements, but it’s left many questions unanswered. The Cabinet Secretary had launched an investigation—that’s now been taken over by another senior civil servant, Sue Gray, after a party was alleged to have taken place in the Cabinet Secretary’s own private office.
Below we explain what parties are alleged to have taken place, what the government’s said at different points—and crucially what the law said at the time. This is a fast-moving story—the following is correct as of 4pm on 27 January 2022.
How many alleged parties were there?
The main reports centre around 15 specific gatherings in total—nine at Number 10 Downing Street, plus five more in Government departments and one at Conservative party headquarters. Here’s a rundown of the alleged parties and events in Downing Street itself:
15 May 2020: alleged drinks in Downing Street garden. On 16 December 2021 the Guardian and Independent reported that Mr Johnson and former health secretary Matt Hancock briefly attended an alleged event with drinks and food at Number 10 on 15 May 2020.
Several days later the Guardian published a picture of the alleged party, which shows a number of people (including Mr and Mrs Johnson) in the garden of Number 10, with bottles of wine on the table.
20 May 2020: alleged party in Downing Street garden. On 10 January 2022 ITV published what it said was a leaked email revealing that more than 100 people were invited to a “bring your own booze” event—described as ”socially distanced drinks”—in the Number 10 garden.
The event was reportedly attended by Mr and Mrs Johnson.
19 June 2020: alleged birthday party for Prime Minister. The most recent of the allegations centres on a reported surprise birthday party for Mr Johnson with up to 30 people in attendance, organised by Mrs Johnson and held in the Cabinet Room in Downing Street.
ITV news reported that the event was attended by interior designer Lulu Lytle, who was not a member of staff at Number 10 but was renovating the Prime Minister’s flat.ITV also reported that on the same evening Mr Johnson hosted family friends in his residence. Number 10 has denied this, saying the Prime Minister only hosted a small number of family members outside.
13 November 2020: alleged flat party at Number 10. This reported event was actually first covered in the Mail on Sunday shortly after it was alleged to have happened, but did not generate controversy until reported by the Mirror at the end of 2021, alongside other claims about parties at Number 10.
Notably 13 November 2020 was the day the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings left his role at Downing Street. Mr Cummings mentioned the alleged party on Twitter midway through Prime Minister’s Questions on 8 December 2021.
27 November 2020: alleged leaving party. This was reportedly a leaving do for a former aide to Mr Cummings, Cleo Watson.
The Mirror quoted an unnamed source claiming up to 50 people were present, and the Prime Minister Boris Johnson is alleged to have spoken at the event. However the BBC said sources claimed it was an impromptu gathering rather than an organised event, and when Mr Cummings tweeted about the event, he said it was a “red herring” and “there was no party”.
15 December 2020: Christmas quiz. This report came again from the Mirror. It published a picture of the Prime Minister sitting with two colleagues and attending a virtual Christmas quiz, part of which he reportedly hosted.
18 December 2020: alleged Christmas party. The alleged Downing Street Christmas party was the event which initially attracted the most attention. According to the Mirror, which broke the story, 40 to 50 people—though not Mr Johnson—were in attendance, with cheese and wine and an organised ‘secret Santa’.
The alleged party was subject to further scrutiny after ITV published a video of Downing Street staff, including Mr Johnson’s then-press secretary Allegra Stratton, laughing about a party during a rehearsal press briefing. Ms Stratton resigned from her role as a government adviser the day after the video went public.
16 April 2021: two alleged leaving parties. It was reported by the Telegraph on 14 January this year that two alleged leaving events took place at 10 Downing Street in April 2021. Reportedly, one was for James Slack, former Number 10 director of communications and the other for one of the Prime Minister’s personal photographers. Reports state that around 30 people were present across both gatherings, with allegations of a “party atmosphere”, dancing and wine at one event.
Notably, 16 April was the day before the Duke of Edinburgh's funeral.
In addition to the above events, it was reported in January 2022 that staff at Number 10 had allegedly held regular “wine time Fridays” throughout the pandemic, with around 50 members of staff invited via online calendar invite each week from 4pm to 7pm.
Sources told the Mirror that a drinks fridge had been bought specifically for the events, with staff reportedly taking turns to buy alcohol from a nearby supermarket which was carried back to Downing Street in a suitcase.
What has the government said?
Prior to the launch of Sue Gray’s investigation, the government repeatedly insisted all Covid rules were followed at all times in Downing Street. But it has declined to answer many questions in detail—and its line on the alleged parties at Number 10 in late 2020 has changed as the story unfolded:
30 November 2021: Responding to the first allegations in the Mirror, a Downing Street spokesperson did not deny the claims, but said: “Covid rules have been followed at all times.” Separately, a spokesperson for Carrie Johnson denied any parties had taken place in the Number 10 flat, telling the Mirror: “This is total nonsense. Mrs Johnson has followed coronavirus rules at all times and it is categorically untrue to suggest otherwise.”
2 December 2021: Asked about reports of a party on BBC Question Time, vaccines minister Maggie Throup said: “I have been reassured that all guidance was carefully followed.” When pressed, she said: “Whatever the event was, then the guidance was followed”, later describing the reports as “rumour and hearsay”.
5 December 2021: On the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, Raab said: “The PM's been very clear, no rules were broken. I wasn't there, by the way." He added: "If anyone held a party contrary to the rules, of course, that's the wrong thing to do. As a lawyer and as a politician, it's not a responsible thing to start answering hypothetical questions about anonymous sources in relation to unsubstantiated claims." During the same appearance Mr Raab said the police “don't normally look back and investigate things that have taken place a year ago”—a claim we fact checked recently.
6 December 2021: Policing minister Kit Malthouse appeared on Sky News and, in apparent contradiction to Mr Raab’s comments, said: “The police should be investigating anything that is a historic crime that is reported to them.” The same day a Downing Street spokesperson stated explicitly that no party had taken place on 18 December 2020, saying: “As the press secretary set out at a number of occasions, when questioned about this originally, there was not a party and the Covid rules were followed at all times.”
8 December 2021: Speaking at PMQs after footage of Downing Street staff laughing about a party emerged, Mr Johnson said: “I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing Number 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures.
He added: “I was also furious to see that clip. I apologise unreservedly for the offence that it has caused up and down the country, and I apologise for the impression that it gives.
“I repeat that I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken…But I have asked the Cabinet Secretary to establish all the facts and to report back as soon as possible. It goes without saying that if those rules were broken, there will be disciplinary action for all those involved.”
Asked whether he could say if there had been a flat party on 13 November 2020, Mr Johnson said: “No, but I am sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed.”
11 December 2021: In response to the Mirror’s story about the Christmas quiz, a Downing Street spokesperson said: “This was a virtual quiz. Downing Street staff were often required to be in the office to work on the pandemic response so those who were in the office for work may have attended virtually from their desks. The Prime Minister briefly took part virtually in a quiz to thank staff for their hard work throughout the year.”
16 December 2021: In response to reports of the alleged drinks event on 15 May 2020, a spokesperson for Mr Hancock said the claims were “not true”, adding that Mr Hancock visited the Downing Street garden to debrief Mr Johnson after a Covid-19 press conference, and left the premises shortly after 6.30pm.
A spokesperson for Mr Johnson said the garden was regularly used for meetings in the summer: “On 15 May 2020 the prime minister held a series of meetings throughout the afternoon, including briefly with the then health and care secretary and his team in the garden following a press conference.
“The Prime Minister went to his residence shortly after 7pm. A small number of staff required to be in work remained in the Downing Street garden for part of the afternoon and evening.”
19 December 2021: In response to the Guardian’s publication of a picture appearing to show Mr and Mrs Johnson sitting with members of Downing Street staff in the garden of Number 10, a Downing Street spokesperson said: “As we said last week, work meetings often take place in the Downing Street garden in the summer months. On this occasion there were staff meetings after a No 10 press conference.
“Downing Street is the prime minister’s home as well as his workplace. The prime minister’s wife lives in No 10 and therefore also legitimately uses the garden.”
11 January 2022: In response to ITV’s story about an alleged party in the garden of Number 10 on 20 May 2020, Downing Street told the broadcaster it “would not comment on the story due to the Sue Gray inquiry”.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner also secured an urgent question for the prime minister in parliament. Mr Johnson did not appear in person to respond to the question, and was instead represented by Paymaster General Michael Ellis MP.
Mr Ellis told MPs in the Commons: “I apologise again unreservedly for the upset that these allegations have caused.”
12 January 2022: At PMQs, Mr Johnson admitted he attended the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020 for around 25 minutes and believed the gathering to be a work event.
He said: “I want to apologise. I know that millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months. I know the anguish they have been through, unable to mourn their relatives, unable to live their lives as they want or to do the things they love, and I know the rage they feel with me and with the government I lead when they think that in Downing Street itself the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules.
“And though I cannot anticipate the conclusions of the current inquiry, I have learned enough to know that there were things we simply did not get right, and I must take responsibility.
“Number 10 is a big department with the garden as an extension of the office, which has been in constant use because of the role of fresh air in stopping the virus and when I went into that garden just after six on the 20 May 2020 to thank groups of staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later to continue working I believed implicitly that this was a work event.
“With hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside, I should have found some other way to thank them and I should have recognised, even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance, there would be millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way.”
14 January 2021: A Number 10 spokesperson commented on one of the leaving parties alleged to have taken place on 16 April 2021. They said: “On this individual’s last day [James Slack] gave a farewell speech to thank each team for the work they had done to support him, both those who had to be in the office for work and on a screen for those working from home.” Number 10 declined to comment about the other alleged party.
Mr Slack said he “apologises unreservedly for the anger and hurt caused” and that the event “should not have happened at the time that it did”.
Downing Street has also said it has apologised to Buckingham Palace, with a spokesperson for the Prime Minister saying it was “deeply regrettable that this took place at a time of national mourning".
In response to reports of “wine time Fridays”, a spokesperson said: “There is an ongoing investigation to establish the facts around the nature of gatherings, including attendance, setting and the purpose with reference to adherence to the guidance at the time. The findings will be made public in due course.”
25 January 2021: In response to ITV’s story about the alleged birthday party on 19 June 2020, a Downing Street spokesperson said: “A group of staff working in No 10 that day gathered briefly in the Cabinet Room after a meeting to wish the Prime Minister a happy birthday. He was there for less than ten minutes.”
Responding to the claims about an alleged event later that evening they said: “This is totally untrue. In line with the rules at the time the Prime Minister hosted a small number of family members outside that evening.”
Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns later told Channel 4 News the Prime Minister was “ambushed with cake”, claiming the alleged event was “not a premeditated, organised party”.
On the same day, Michael Ellis responded to an Urgent Question, submitted by Ms Rayner, about the “status of the investigation into Downing Street parties” in light of the recently-announced Metropolitan Police investigation. He said: “This is a matter for the police, and the House will understand that I am not in a position to comment on the nature or content of the police investigation.”
- 26 January 2021: When questioned by Mr Starmer during PMQs about the police investigation, Mr Johnson said: “There is simply no way… that I can comment on the investigation that is currently taking place”.
Allegations over parties aren’t just limited to Downing Street
Five other events have also been under scrutiny:
25 November 2020: Treasury drinks. According to the Times, more than 20 people attended a drinks event held in Treasury offices.
A Treasury spokesperson told the Times: “In line with the guidance at the time, a number of staff came into the office to work on the Spending Review 2020. We have been made aware that a small number of those staff had impromptu drinks around their desks after the event.”
10 December 2020: Department for Education drinks. The Mirror also revealed “up to two dozen” employees at the Department for Education (DfE) gathered in the department’s cafe for “drinks and canapes”.
A DfE spokesperson said: “The gathering was used to thank those staff for their efforts during the pandemic. While this was work-related, looking back we accept it would have been better not to have gathered in this way at that particular time.”
14 December 2020: Mayoral campaign event. The Times alleged Shaun Bailey, who in December 2020 was running as Conservative candidate for Mayor of London, attended a “raucous” party, with drinking and dancing.
The paper said a Conservative Party spokesperson “confirmed the ‘unauthorised social gathering’... and said that ‘formal disciplinary action was taken against the four CCHQ staff who were seconded to the Bailey campaign’”.
The Mirror later published a picture which it said was from the event, showing at least 20 people with some holding drinks next to party food. Mr Bailey has now resigned as chair of the London Assembly’s police and crime committee. He tweeted: “I want to apologise unreservedly for attending a gathering held by some of my staff in my campaign office.”
16 December 2020: Department for Transport (DfT) drinks and food. The Mirror reported that senior staff in the DfT had organised and attended a Christmas party. A spokesperson for the department described the event as a “low-key, socially distanced gathering” with drinks and food, adding: “We recognise this was inappropriate and apologise for the error of judgement.” A spokesperson for transport secretary Grant Shapps said: "He was not notified or invited and would have banned such a gathering forthwith, had he been made aware that it was being prepared.”
17 December 2020: alleged “Christmas Party” in the Cabinet Secretary’s office. An event was allegedly held for members of Cabinet Secretary Simon Case’s private office. According to reports, a quiz was organised on 17 December, with invites sent round titled “Christmas Party!”
Responding to the claims, a government spokesperson said the quiz was “virtual” but had also been attended by a “small number” of staff who had been working in the office.
The spokesperson added: “The Cabinet Secretary played no part in the event, but walked through the team’s office on the way to his own office. No outside guests or other staff were invited or present.”
- 17 December 2020: alleged leaving party. On 14 January 2022 a former senior civil servant, who had overseen the work of the government’s Covid-19 taskforce, apologised for reportedly having leaving drinks in an office at 70 Whitehall attended by “dozens” of members of staff.
On Saturday 15 January 2022 the Daily Mail published a front-page picture of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer appearing to drink a beer with Labour staff in a constituency office in Durham in April 2021, describing him as a “hypocrite”. The Sun had published the same picture in May 2021 alongside accusations that Mr Starmer had broken Covid-19 rules.
Indoor household mixing was banned at the time, except for work purposes and other limited circumstances.
On 16 January 2022 Mr Starmer told the BBC’s Sunday Morning Live: “I was in a constituency office just days before the election, we were very busy, we were working in the office and we stopped for something to eat and then we carried on working.
“That is the long and the short of it, no party, no breach of the rules and absolutely no comparison with the Prime Minister.”
What was the law at the time?
The alleged parties in 2020 took place at a time when Covid restrictions were rapidly changing:
- From 23 March to 1 June 2020 England was in its first national lockdown. Everyone was required to stay at home, including school pupils, and non-essential businesses were closed. On 10 May, ten days before the alleged garden party at Number 10, Mr Johnson gave a speech announcing the alert level system for Covid-19 and encouraging people who could not work from home to return to their place of work. Outdoor meetings in public places were limited to only one person from outside your household with social distancing rules in place. Workplace guidance indicated that people should maintain a two-metre distance wherever possible, breaks should be staggered and meetings should be limited to essential members of staff only.
- From 1 June 2020 to 4 July 2020 Covid-19 rules in England relaxed, but restrictions remained in place. Schools and non-essential shops reopened during this period, but social distancing rules remained in place. People were allowed to meet outside in public in groups of up to six, and indoors in public in groups of up to two.
- From 5 November to 1 December 2020 England was in national lockdown. This meant everyone was required to stay at home, and could only leave for a limited set of reasons—for example education, work (if you could not work from home), exercise and essential shopping. Crucially, indoor social gatherings were not allowed.
- From 2 December to 15 December 2020 London was under Tier 2 restrictions. People were still forbidden to mix socially with friends and family from other households indoors (except in support bubbles), and a maximum of six people could meet outdoors. The public were also instructed to work from home if possible.
- From 16 December to 21 December 2020, London was under Tier 3 restrictions. At the time, this was the toughest level of restrictions available. People were still forbidden to mix socially indoors with friends and family from other households (with the exception of support bubbles).
- From 12 April to 16 May 2021 England was at stage 2 of the roadmap out of its third lockdown. This meant groups of up to six were allowed to meet outdoors, while meetings indoors with anyone outside of a household or support bubble were still forbidden (unless certain exemptions applied).
What is being investigated?
However, Mr Case stepped down from his role in the inquiry after it emerged an event was alleged to have taken place in his own office. Number 10 subsequently said the investigation would be concluded by senior civil servant Sue Gray.
The BBC had previously reported the investigation would cover the events in Downing Street on 27 November 2020, 15 December 2020 and 18 December 2020, alongside the alleged DfE party.
Addressing Parliament on 11 January 2022, Mr Ellis confirmed the events of 15 and 20 May would also be included in Ms Gray’s investigation, but did not provide a firm date for when it would conclude. Instead, he said Ms Gray would report back in “due course”, adding that the investigation could be delayed if the matter was referred to the Metropolitan Police.
As of 27 January 2022 Ms Gray’s report is yet to be published, however there were strong indications that it would be published within days of the news of the police investigation emerging on 25 January.
There has been some speculation among legal experts that there could be a legal loophole exempting those on properties belonging to the Crown from Covid regulations, but the situation remains very unclear.
We don’t know all the facts at this stage or what the outcome of the review will be. But it’s important to note there’s a requirement on all those working in the public sector to be honest and open. They are expected to adhere to ethical standards which state that they are accountable to the public for their actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
In addition to this, ministers are expected to behave in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety, in accordance with the Ministerial Code which sets out the standards of conduct expected of ministers. They are also required to give accurate and truthful information to Parliament and to correct any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.
Will the police investigate?
Thousands of people were fined over the course of 2020 for breaking Covid regulations, with 2,982 fines issued in England for participating in a gathering inside a house or any indoor space in a Tier 3 area between March 2020 and January 2021. A total of 250 people were fined for holding gatherings of more than 30 people in the same period.
Opposition MPs have also highlighted that some recent prosecutions date back to late last year. On 8 December 2021, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer stated in Parliament: “At Westminster Magistrates' Court right now, the CPS are prosecuting over a dozen breaches of Covid restrictions last December including those who hosted parties.”
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick announced on 25 January 2022 that the force had launched an investigation into reports of parties at Number 10, after being passed information by Ms Gray.
Ms Dick did not specify which parties would be investigated, and said the action by police did not mean that discovery of regulation breaches would lead to fixed penalty notices being issued “in every instance and to every person involved".
Previously, Scotland Yard had said a number of times that it had been made aware of reports of Covid rules allegedly being broken at Downing Street and of the footage of the rehearsal press briefing. However, it has also said that throughout the pandemic it has not been the force’s policy to retrospectively investigate breaches of the rules.
On 9 December 2021 the force said it would not investigate the alleged parties due to "an absence of evidence".
However, it emerged on 16 December 2021 that the Metropolitan Police would make contact with two people who attended the alleged party attended by Mr Bailey at the Conservative Campaign Headquarters in December 2020. The force added that, in general, “if significant evidence suggesting a breach of the regulations becomes available, officers may review and consider it”.
It was reported on 11 January 2022 that the force had made contact with the Cabinet Office following reports of the alleged large gathering in the gardens of Number 10 in May 2020.
On 13 January 2022 (before allegations of two more parties in Downing Street in April 2021 emerged) the Metropolitan Police issued a statement reiterating its position that “officers do not normally investigate breaches of Coronavirus Regulations when they are reported long after they are said to have taken place.” It added: “However, if significant evidence suggesting a breach of the regulations becomes available, officers may review and consider it.”
Image courtesy of Defence Images, via Flickr.
Update 17 December 2021
We updated this piece to reflect new reporting on 16 December.
Update 20 December 2021
We updated this piece to reflect new reporting.
Update 14 January 2022
We've updated this article to reflect the latest events as of 3pm on 14 January.
Update 18 January 2022
This article has been updated to include details of recent reports.
Update 27 January 2022
This article has been updated to include details of recent reports.