When the country was in lockdown at the end of March 2020 and parliamentarians returned to their constituencies for an early Easter break, then business minister Nadhim Zahawi laid out the rules for businesses across the country to fight against the pandemic.
He urged them to help prevent the spread of disease by avoiding unnecessary mixing. “Workers should try to minimize all meetings and gatherings in the workplace,” he said in a written parliamentary response.
Across the country, businesses, charities and public bodies have heeded the message. It now appears that there was one address which was a notable exception to these guidelines: No 10 Downing Street.
From the nationwide lockdown announced by Boris Johnson on March 23, 2020 until April last year, there have been at least 14 parties, leaving backs, quizzes and get-togethers with drinks in Downing Street, as well as in d other offices in Whitehall.
“It was ‘partying’ and nobody was saying ‘don’t do that,'” Lord Kerslake, a former civil service chief, said last week. “Once it started, it got worse and worse. There was a lack of moral conscience.
“It is appallingly unruly, irresponsible and tone-deaf behavior that showed a complete lack of empathy for the way the country must have suffered under lockdown at the time.”
It was alleged last week that one of the May events spilled into the garden late at night and a reveler broke the swing of a child belonging to Wilf Johnson, the Prime Minister’s son . It is also claimed that a suitcase was used on at least one occasion for a supermarket run to stock up on alcohol, and a £142 drinks fridge was set up in the ground floor press office to “Wine Fridays”.
The “partygate” scandal is vying to be the biggest political mess of Johnson’s career. Sue Gray, the second permanent secretary of the Department for Leveling, Housing and Communities, who was responsible for propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office for six years, has the unenviable task of unraveling it.
She has a reputation for being fair, independent and tough-minded, but there is a growing consensus that her investigation is no longer fit for purpose.
Kerslake said: ‘When the investigation started it was an event and we didn’t know the Prime Minister was involved. Now we see that there have been over a dozen events and not only is the Prime Minister involved, but he is front, back and center of what happened.
“You cannot have a situation where an official will make a statement that could end the post of Prime Minister. The consequence is that Sue Gray will inevitably have to stop before that.
Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff who served in Downing Street for a decade, said Gray would lay out the facts and the case would be decided by the “court of public opinion”.
He said Downing Street was passing off the report as a ‘get out of jail’ map because officials were confident there would be no finding that the Prime Minister broke lockdown laws because the case was not within the scope of the investigation.
Powell said he had great regard for Gray, but it was “totally inappropriate” for the investigation to be carried out by an official reporting to the Prime Minister. He said it would be ‘career-shortening’ for her to make a judgment that the Prime Minister had potentially broken the law or breached the ministerial code and that it would be best if an independent non-judicial inquiry was carried out in the space of a few weeks.
Powell also said Johnson’s staff seemed to have thrown more staff parties in a few months than Blair’s team had thrown in a decade. “It’s quite extraordinary,” he said. “I don’t know how much time was left for work.”
He said his experience of Downing Street was that it had been extremely difficult to take food or drink without exhaustive checks by the police. He said: ‘I’m amazed they were able to send someone and come back with a suitcase full of booze. Imagine running that through the scanner.
Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, a nonprofit which campaigns on legal issues, said the investigation into the parties should now be led by the police.
He said: “The key question is whether the prime minister, officials or special advisers have committed a criminal offence. This investigation by Sue Gray does not aim to answer this question. It all looks like a smokescreen for what should happen – an investigation by the Metropolitan Police.
According to Gray’s investigation terms of reference, if evidence potentially implicating a criminal offense is uncovered, it will be turned over to police. If that happens, the government investigation could be put on hold.
The Metropolitan Police said on Saturday they were in “continuing contact” with the Cabinet Office as part of the investigation, but would not say whether they had received any information about potential offences.
Adam Wagner, a lawyer and Covid law expert, said Gray had a conflict of interest because she was investigating more senior government figures.
“He is clearly compromised,” he said. “It wouldn’t pass for an independent investigation under any legal framework.”