The emergence of images showing Boris Johnson with a drink in hand at a departure event in Downing Street during the November 2020 lockdown has given further impetus to controversy over whether the Prime Minister lied in denying that any parties had taken place inside No 10. The footage also raised a range of questions, both about what Johnson knew and the conduct of subsequent investigations.
1. Why was Johnson not fined for this event?
It is something that has been intrigued by lawyers since the footage was revealed on Monday by ITV News. It is fair to say that, so far, no one has yet found a satisfactory answer.
The Metropolitan Police investigation into parties in and around No 10 has fined Johnson (along with his wife, Carrie, and the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak) for attending a birthday party for the prime minister in the cabinet room in June 2020. But police did not penalize Johnson for the November 13, 2020 rally, or even, according to reports, send him a questionnaire about it. Fines were, however, imposed on others there.
The apparent explanation offered by Grant Shapps, the transportation secretary, on Tuesday was that Johnson had just stepped in to toast Lee Cain, his outgoing communications manager, whose leaving party it was.
But some of those present say the whole event was initiated by Johnson, who poured drinks, gave a speech and stayed for up to 25 minutes. So unless the police explain their decision, which seems unlikely, their lack of a fine remains a mystery.
2. Was it really a party?
Shapps’ argument was apparently that even though it was a party, Johnson wasn’t partying himself. People looking at the raised glasses and the table littered with bottles of wine and spirits, as well as takeout, might disagree. This is however both a somewhat semantic and not entirely relevant debate.
Legal guidelines at the time, during the 28-day ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown in England, only allowed indoor gatherings of people not from the same household under a few, mostly very specific conditions such as funerals, awakenings and in circumstances where children live between two houses.
The only one potentially relevant to the departure celebration was the exception for gatherings deemed “reasonably necessary” for business purposes. But even for that, what’s shown in the pictures seems to fall well outside of that stipulation.
More detailed guidelines for workplaces issued at the time stated that in-person meetings should be avoided where possible, adding: “Only absolutely necessary participants should attend meetings and should maintain a 2m separation while during.” There is no mention of drinks or speeches.
3. So, did Johnson mislead Parliament?
In December last year, as reports of various gatherings began to emerge, Johnson was questioned in parliament by Labor MP Catherine West about the November 13 event. In response, the Prime Minister said “the rules were followed at all times”.
This seems incorrect in two respects. First, given that others were fined for attending, the rally was clearly not legal. But even based on what Johnson maintained, he did not believe at the time that any rules had been broken; what is shown in the photos makes this claim hard to believe. To most viewers, it looks a lot like a party.
The House of Commons Privileges Committee will decide when it conducts its own inquiry. Even if the cross-party group of MPs leading Johnson misled Parliament, there is no legal obligation for him to step down, just a convention that it would happen.
4. How and why were the photos leaked?
Shortly before they were published, Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief assistant, posted one of his on-and-off blog posts claiming (among several things) that the next day or so photos would emerge, which would bring “any reasonable person” to conclude that the PM had lied.
Cummings left No 10 on the same day as Cain – albeit in a sort of apparent anger, without leaving drinks – and would therefore have a good idea of what happened. He also clearly despises Johnson and would have reason to leak damaging footage.
That said, we don’t know who leaked them, and there’s no shortage of former No 10 staffers or their associates who might choose to do so. The “why” seems simpler – hurting Johnson’s credibility ahead of the impending Civil Service party report, led by Sue Gray.
5. Will the photos be in Gray’s report?
Some images should appear, although it is not known which ones. Gray is expected to only identify senior officials, so if she were to use footage such as that given to ITV they would have to, as ITV did, blur some attendees, making it less likely . She is, however, tipped to criticize a wider culture of drinking and breaking the rules in and around Downing Street. Whether the blame ultimately lies with Johnson or his staff remains to be seen.