“Is this for real?” responded one Downing Street staff member to a party invitation from Boris Johnson’s private secretary at the height of the first lockdown. Sadly, shamefully, it was.
The undisputed facts bear repetition. At the daily coronavirus news briefing on 20 May 2020, Oliver Dowden, then culture secretary, reiterated that Covid restrictions permitted individuals to meet just one person from outside their household. Barely an hour later, one of the prime minister’s most senior aides invited about 100 colleagues to a party in the Downing Street garden. Leaving no room for doubt as to the nature of the occasion, staff were told to “bring your own booze”. It seems that 30 to 40 people attended and the star guests, according to eyewitness accounts, were the prime minister and his now wife, Carrie.
After a month of denials and disingenuous evasion over “partygate”, this latest evidence of an outrageous breach of public trust takes Mr Johnson into new, exposed territory. In December, when a leaked video revealed Downing Street aides joking about how to explain away a Christmas party, the prime minister exuded faux-indignation and launched an inquiry. When this newspaper subsequently published a now notorious photograph of a garden gathering enjoyed by No 10 staff on 15 May 2020 – with the prime minister and his wife both present – the occasion was defended as an extended work meeting. But Martin Reynolds’ email invitation, sent five days later, allows little wriggle room for alibis or obfuscation and places the prime minister’s future on the line. This was clearly a party, and it therefore broke the law; Mr Johnson has failed to deny that he went to it, and it seems wholly implausible that it could have been organised without his consent, tacit or otherwise. As unprecedented sacrifices were being required of those unable to see dying relatives or attend friends’ funerals, Downing Street was treating the lockdown rules that Mr Johnson had set with contempt.
Sent out to defend the indefensible in the House of Commons on Tuesday, the paymaster general, Michael Ellis, chided MPs for rushing to “prejudge” the ongoing inquiry into Downing Street “gatherings”, which is being conducted by the senior civil servant Sue Gray. She was drafted in to replace the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, when it emerged that a Christmas event had been held for members of Mr Case’s own private office. Ms Gray is now charged with ascertaining the facts regarding a party that Mr Johnson himself is alleged to have attended, and on which he has refused to comment publicly, before reporting them to him. This black farce brings politics into disrepute at a time when trust between the governed and the governing remains vital in the management of the pandemic.
The millions of Britons who obeyed Covid rules, in often heartbreaking circumstances, can only rely on the respected Ms Gray to do her job rigorously. But the Metropolitan police should prepare to launch their own inquiry into a saga which has scandalised the nation and which now directly implicates the prime minister in wrongdoing.
On the day that Mr Reynolds encouraged colleagues to congregate and enjoy the hottest day of the year, the Met tweeted a warning that, whatever the weather, the public was obliged to stick to the rules. Fines were issued to those who did not. No healthy democracy can allow the perception to take root that certain powerful people are above the law, least of all during a public health crisis of the first order. Yet this is what Mr Johnson has allowed to happen. The prime minister will hope to bluster his way through, as he has done so often before. But if he is found to have egregiously flouted the rules, and misled parliament, he should pay the price.