On a sunny evening in May 2020, while the rest of the British public was largely confined to their homes amid a strict Covid-19 lockdown, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was attending a ‘bring your own booze’ party on the lawns of 10 Downing Street. The recent revelation has drawn widespread criticism from lawmakers as well as the public, prompting Johnson to issue an apology in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
“I want to apologise,” the prime minister said, days after reports of the party first surfaced. “With hindsight, I should have sent everyone back inside.” Johnson initially declined to confirm whether he had, in fact, attended the outdoor event.
This comes after ITV first released an email sent by Johnson’s private secretary, inviting around 100 staffers for “socially distanced drinks”. Johnson and his now-wife Carrie were among the 40 people who ended up attending the event despite the lockdown, ITV reported.
But this was not the only time Johnson and other senior government officials are believed to have violated Covid restrictions. An official probe is looking into at least seven such occasions in 2020, including garden parties, Christmas get-togethers and office quiz nights at Downing Street, which is the prime minister’s office and official residence.
Under fire after the ITV report, Johnson faced the House of Commons on Wednesday, in what is widely believed to be one of the most important moments of his prime ministerial career. He has been facing pressure from both Conservatives and opposition MPs, some of whom have even called for his resignation.
Addressing a packed Commons on Wednesday, Johnson admitted that he had attended the party in the Downing Street garden during the first lockdown, but maintained that he thought it was a work event and had “technically” broken no rules.
Johnson insisted that he attended the event only for about 25 minutes. Since the No 10 garden was being used as an “extension of the office” amid lockdown, he believed it was a work event.
“I know the rage they feel with me, and with the government I lead, when they think that in Downing Street itself the rules were not being properly followed by the people who make the rules,” he said.
He also vested his faith in the ongoing investigation into the gathering and others like it by senior civil servant Sue Gray.
But the Opposition was not buying Johnson’s version of events. Labour leader, Keir Starmer, who has been calling for Johnson’s resignation, said that his excuse “that he didn’t realise he was at a party, is so ridiculous that it’s actually offensive to the British public”.
“He’s finally been forced to admit what everyone knew, that when the whole country was locked down he was hosting boozing parties in Downing Street. Is he now going to do the decent thing and resign?” Starmer added.
The ITV report revealed the latest among a series of controversial lockdown parties that the prime minister is said to have attended in 2020. An email shared exclusively with ITV News, with the less-than-subtle subject: ‘Socially Distanced Drinks!’, was sent by the Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary Martin Reynolds to over a hundred employees in Number 10.
“After what has been an incredibly busy period we thought it would be nice to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the No10 garden this evening,” the email reads. “Please join us from 6pm and bring your own booze!”
According to the report, around 40 members of the Prime Minister’s staff gathered in the garden that evening to enjoy an array of picnic food and drinks. Among the attendees was PM Johnson and his wife Carrie.
The party was earlier mentioned in a blog post by the Prime Minister’s former advisor Dominic Cummings. The latest allegations come after a report by The Guardian stated that the prime minister joined No 10 staff for a pizza party on May 15 to celebrate “beating back” coronavirus.
After the ITV report, London Police said that they were in contact with the Cabinet Office over the alleged lockdown violations at Downing Street.
The rest of Britain, meanwhile, was grappling with strict new lockdown rules, which banned more than two people from different households from meeting outside. During the UK’s first lockdown, which began in March 2020 and lasted for over two months, schools, restaurants and pubs were closed across the country. Police fined thousands for flouting Covid restrictions.
Notably, the two gatherings in question were held just weeks after Johnson, himself, recovered for Covid-19.
An inquiry, led by senior civil servant Sue Grey, is presently looking into a number of parties held at Downing Street despite Covid restrictions separating families and friends across the country. The investigation was originally supposed to be held by Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, but he recused himself after it was revealed that a Christmas get-together was held in his own private office in December 2020.
Apart from the May 2020 garden party, here is a list of events that may also be investigated:
May 15, 2020: The PM and several other Number 10 staffers are believed to have attended a gathering in Downing Street following a Covid news conference. Johnson is said to have attended the event for about 15 minutes, and is believed to have told an aide that they deserved a drink for “beating back” coronavirus, The Guardian reported.
November 13, 2020: Cummings was sacked after internal battles over his role as Johnson’s chief advisor. Before leaving he claimed that a party was held at the PM’s residence despite the national lockdown.
While Number 10 denied the allegation, a separate report by The Times claimed that Johnson had given a leaving speech for his outgoing communications chief Lee Cain that evening.
November 25, 2020: The Treasury confirmed that about two dozen civil servants gathered for impromptu drinks on November 25 last year, while officials worked on the autumn Spending Review.
November 27, 2020: Johnson addressed a room crammed full of people as he gave a speech to mark the departure of another aide.
December 14, 2020: A photograph first published in The Times showed Conservative staff enjoying food and drinks at the party headquarters. The party later said that the gathering was “unauthorised” and had pulled up several of the staffers present at the event.
December 15, 2020: Johnson was photographed attending a Christmas quiz at his residence, which he claimed was a work gathering.
December 18, 2020: According to a report by the Daily Mirror, another party was held at Downing Street.
A video obtained by ITV News showed Johnson’s former press secretary Allegra Stratton joking about the event during a mock news conference. The leak led to her tearful resignation.