How much trouble is Boris Johnson in over partygate? Since allegations first emerged last year of a number of parties and gatherings in 10 Downing Street when the rest of the country was living under strict Covid restrictions, the Prime Minister has had to launch an investigation (now led by civil servant Sue Gray after cabinet secretary Simon Case had to step down over his own prior knowledge of said gatherings) and seen his approval ratings plummet. Just as Downing Street aides had begun to hope the saga was nearing an end, new evidence has emerged which appears to put Johnson in the firing line.
ITV News has published an email sent by the Prime Minister's Principal Private Secretary Martin Reynolds inviting over 100 staff to a drinks party in the No. 10 garden on 20 May 2020. In the email, Reynolds tells staff: 'After what has been an incredibly busy period we thought it would be nice to make the most of this lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden this evening. Please join us from 6pm and bring your own booze!'
— Paul Brand (@PaulBrandITV) January 10, 2022
EXCL: Email obtained by @itvnews proves over 100 staff were invited to drinks party in No 10 garden at height of lockdown to “make the most of the lovely weather”.We’re told PM and his wife attended, with staff invited to “bring your own booze!”https://t.co/rg34EIkdz2 pic.twitter.com/UORlSwwHJX
Details of this gathering first came to light last week in a blog post by Dominic Cummings, Johnson's former aide turned nemesis. Cummings stated that he told those organising the event it seemed a bad idea. At the time of the drinks, the rules stated that members of the public could only meet one person outside of their household in an outside public space and only if they remained two metres apart:
— Metropolitan Police (@metpoliceuk) May 20, 2020
Have you been enjoying the hottest day of the year so far? 🌞It is important that we all continue to #StayAlertYou can relax, have a picnic, exercise or play sport, as long as you are:➡️ On your own➡️ With people you live with➡️ Just you and one other person pic.twitter.com/LAVe6DScQ5
What makes the disclosure particularly uncomfortable for the Prime Minister is that several figures with knowledge of the gathering claim both Johnson and his wife Carrie attended the picnic and drinks. When Johnson was pressed on this, he refused to deny the allegations. Instead, the Downing Street line is that the inquiry is ongoing so it is inappropriate to comment on an ongoing inquiry.
When it comes to the ongoing inquiry, the leak is important for several reasons. First, will Reynolds be forced out? There have been reports of late that he is being lined up as a potential scapegoat in the inquiry — with a role as an ambassador being lined up. The email increases pressure on Reynolds and makes it harder for him to stay in position.
Second, it puts Johnson back in the story. When it comes to the infamous cheese and wine gathering, Johnson has been able to say he was not present — suggesting his biggest sin was to not keep a closer eye on staff. When the Prime Minister was asked about alleged parties — following leaked footage of Downing Street staff joking about the cheese and wine party — Johnson told the Commons: 'I have been repeatedly assured that there was no party and no Covid rules were broken.'
The fact Johnson was allegedly there means such defences are much harder. What's more, Downing Street aides have repeatedly suggested there were no parties whatsoever. Just as Johnson attempted to move on from a difficult few months of headlines with new policy announcements — starting today with cladding — the government finds itself once again on the back foot with more questions on the issue to answer than ever.