Did the Prime Minister mislead Parliament over ‘Partygate’?
On 25 May senior civil servant Sue Gray published her report into what’s been dubbed by some as “Partygate”—a series of events which took place in Downing Street and elsewhere in Whitehall while Covid-19 laws limiting social gatherings were in force. Six days earlier the Metropolitan Police said it had completed its own investigation into a number of the events.
Alongside details of 16 gatherings, the report includes a series of images, four of which were first published by ITV News on 23 May, showing the Prime Minister Boris Johnson in attendance at a gathering during the UK’s second national lockdown in November 2020.
Ms Gray’s report said: “Whatever the initial intent, what took place at many of these gatherings and the way in which they developed was not in line with Covid guidance at the time. Even allowing for the extraordinary pressures officials and advisers were under, the factual findings of this report illustrate some attitudes and behaviours inconsistent with that guidance. It is also clear, from the outcome of the police investigation, that a large number of individuals (83) who attended these events breached Covid regulations and therefore Covid guidance.”
It added: “The events that [Ms Gray] investigated were attended by leaders in government. Many of these events should not have been allowed to happen. It is also the case that some of the more junior civil servants believed that their involvement in some of these events was permitted given the attendance of senior leaders. The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture.”
The findings of the report, as well as the images, have led to renewed questions over what Mr Johnson previously told MPs. So we’ve taken another look at what exactly the Prime Minister said, and why he’s been accused of misleading Parliament.
What was Parliament told?
Allegations of illegal gatherings in Downing Street were first raised in Parliament by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer on 1 December 2021.
Mr Starmer asked: “As millions of people were locked down last year, was a Christmas party thrown in Downing Street for dozens of people on 18 December ?”
Mr Johnson responded by saying that “all guidance was followed completely in Number 10”. It is not entirely clear from this response whether he meant all guidance was followed at all times during the pandemic, or whether he was specifically claiming that all guidance was followed on 18 December.
A week later, following the emergence of a video of Downing Street staff members joking about whether there had been a Christmas party in Number 10, Mr Johnson said in Parliament on 8 December: “I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken.” Later that day he told a Downing Street press conference that “all the evidence I can see is that people in this building have stayed within the rules”.
Of the gathering on 18 December 2020, which Mr Johnson did not attend but which was the focus of allegations he was responding to when he said all guidance was followed, Ms Gray’s report says: “Some members of staff drank excessively. The event was crowded and noisy such that some people working elsewhere in the No 10 building that evening heard significant levels of noise coming from what they characterised as a “party” in the Press Office. A cleaner who attended the room the next morning noted that there had been red wine spilled on one wall and on a number of boxes of photocopier paper.”
Ms Gray’s report confirms Mr Johnson’s attendance at nine of the 16 events she investigated, although in some cases his attendance was brief. In April, it was confirmed that the Prime Minister had been issued with a Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN) for a gathering on 19 June 2020 as part of an investigation being conducted by the Metropolitan Police.
What happened on 13 November 2020?
While lots of what Mr Johnson has said has been under scrutiny, a key focus of claims that he misled Parliament has been around his comments about the events of 13 November 2020.According to Ms Gray’s report, two gatherings took place in Downing Street on that day, both of which the Prime Minister attended.
The images published this week by ITV and included in Ms Gray’s report show the Prime Minister at a gathering to mark the departure of then-director of communications Lee Cain. According to Ms Gray’s report Mr Johnson also attended a separate gathering in the Number 10 flat along with five special advisers.
The Prime Minister himself was not fined for attending either event, though the Metropolitan Police confirmed that FPNs were issued in connection with at least one of these events.
The report says Mr Johnson “went to the Press Office area, joined the gathering and made a leaving speech for Lee Cain. Wine had been provided and those attending, including the Prime Minister, were drinking alcohol.”
Ms Gray has stated that her investigation into the second gathering on 13 November 2020— alleged to be the so-called “ABBA party” held to celebrate the departure of Mr Cain and former chief adviser Dominic Cummings—was curtailed by the commencement of the Metropolitan Police’s investigation. But the report does state that it involved the Prime Minister and five special advisers, and that “food and alcohol were available”.
What did Mr Johnson tell MPs about the 13 November gatherings?
Mr Johnson first directly addressed claims that there had been a party in Downing Street on 13 November 2020 during Prime Minister’s Questions on 8 December 2021, when Labour MP Catherine West asked Mr Johnson: “Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether there was a party in Downing Street on 13 November?”
Mr Johnson replied: “No, but I am sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.”
As we have written before, we can’t say for certain that Mr Johnson’s “no” was intended as a denial that a party was held on 13 November. The way that Ms West’s question was phrased could mean that Mr Johnson was instead declining to “tell the House whether there was a party”.
However Mr Johnson has taken a different tack when subsequently questioned why he responded in the way he did.
Asked on 25 May following the publication of Ms Gray’s report about his response to Ms West, Mr Johnson said: “The answer is that it’s part of my job to say thank you to people who work in government, that’s what I was doing. I believed it was a work event, and indeed there has been no fine issued to me as a result of my attendance at that event.”
This has been the central theme of Mr Johnson’s defence of what he told MPs. He has repeatedly said that at the time he told Parliament all rules had been followed, he did not think any rules had been broken, including at the event he was ultimately fined for.
Was Parliament misled?
The Prime Minister’s previous claims that “all guidance” was followed “at all times” in Downing Street are clearly contradicted by the outcome of the Metropolitan Police investigation, which resulted in 126 FPNs issued to 83 individuals in connection with events held on eight days between 20 May 2020 and 16 April 2021.
Mr Johnson has himself since acknowledged that what he told Parliament was not correct, saying that while he did not at the time consider any breaches to have taken place, he subsequently accepted that some of the events were against the rules.
In a statement to the House of Commons on 19 April 2022, he said: “It did not occur to me, then or subsequently, that a gathering in the Cabinet Room just before a vital meeting on Covid strategy could amount to a breach of the rules. I repeat: that was my mistake and I apologise for it unreservedly.”
Addressing the findings of Ms Gray’s report today, he said: “I am happy to set on the record now that when I said, I came to this House and said in all sincerity that the rules and guidance had been followed at all times, it was what I believed to be true. It was certainly the case when I was present at gatherings to wish staff farewell, and my attendance at these moments, brief as it was, has not been found to be outside the rules.”
However, while Mr Johnson appears to have accepted that he inadvertently misled Parliament, he has strongly denied knowingly misleading Parliament. That is a very different question which has been referred for investigation by the cross-party Commons Privileges Committee. Once its investigation is complete, the committee will decide if it believes Mr Johnson deliberately misled Parliament and can recommend what kind of sanction, if any, he should face. All MPs will then vote to agree or disagree with its findings and recommendations.
The ministerial code states: “It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.”
Image courtesy of Number 10.