The emergency of images showing Boris Johnson, glass in hand, at a leaving event inside Downing Street during the lockdown of November 2020, has brought fresh impetus to the controversy over whether the prime minister lied in denying parties had taken place inside No 10. The pictures have also raised a series of questions, both about what Johnson knew, and the conduct of subsequent investigations.
1. Why was Johnson not fined for this event?
This is something that has been puzzled over by lawyers since the pictures were revealed on Monday by ITV News. It is fair to say that, so far, no one has yet to come up with a satisfactory answer.
The Metropolitan police investigation into parties in and around No 10 fined Johnson (as well as his wife, Carrie, and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak) for attending a birthday celebration for the PM in the cabinet room in June 2020. But police did not penalize Johnson for the 13 November 2020 gathering, or even, reports say, send him a questionnaire about it. Fines were, however, issued to others there.
The apparent explanation offered by Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, on Tuesday was that Johnson had just popped in to raise a toast to Lee Cain, his outgoing head of communications, whose leaving celebration it was.
But some of those present say the entire event was instigated by Johnson, who poured drinks, made a speech, and stayed for up to 25 minutes. So unless the police explain their decision, which seems unlikely, his lack of a fine remains a mystery.
2. Was this actually a party?
Shapps’ argument was seemingly that even if it was a party, Johnson was not himself partying. People looking at the raised glasses, and table littered with bottles of wine and spirits, plus takeaway food, might disagree. This is, however, both a somewhat semantic debate and not entirely relevant.
The legal guidance for the time, during England’s 28-day “circuit-breaker” lockdown, permitted indoor gatherings of people not in the same household under only a handful of conditions, mainly very specific ones such as funerals, wakes, and in circumstances where children live between two homes.
The only one potentially relevant to the leaving celebration was the exception for gatherings deemed “reasonably necessary” for work purposes. But even for this, what is shown in the images appears to fall well outside this stipulation.
The more detailed guidance for workplaces published at the time set out that in-person meetings should be avoided where possible, adding: “Only absolutely necessary participants should attend meetings and should maintain 2m separation throughout.” 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 quizzed in parliament by the Labor MP Catherine West about the 13 November event. In response, the prime minister said “the rules were followed at all times”.
This would appear to be inaccurate on two counts. Firstly, given others were fined for attending, the gathering was clearly not legal. But even on the basis that Johnson was arguing he did not believe at the time that any rules had been broken; what is shown in the photos makes that assertion hard to believe. To most onlookers, it very much resembles a party.
The Commons privileges committee will decide on this when it holds its own inquiry. Even if the cross-party group of MPs rules Johnson did mislead parliament, there is no legal requirement for him to resign, just a convention that this would happen.
4. How and why were the pictures leaked?
Shortly before they were published, Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief aide, posted one of his intermittent blogposts asserting (among several things) that in the next day or so, photos would emerge which would cause “any reasonable person” to conclude the PM had lied.
Cummings left No 10 on the same day as Cain – although in something of an apparent huff, without any leaving drinks – and would thus have a good idea of what went on. He also clearly despises Johnson and would have reason to leak damaging images.
All that said, we do not know who leaked them, and there is no shortage of former No 10 staff or their associates who might choose to. The “why” appears more straightforward – to damage Johnson’s credibility before the imminent civil service report into the parties, led by Sue Gray.
5. Will the photos be in Gray’s report?
Some images are expected to appear, although it remains unclear which. Gray is expected to identify only senior officials, so if she was to use pictures such as those handed to ITV they would need to, as ITV did, blur out some attendees, which makes it less likely. She is, however, tipped to criticize a wider culture of drinking and failing to abide by rules in and around Downing Street. Whether the blame ultimately falls to Johnson or his staff remains to be seen.