The threat to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s position deepened yesterday, as police said they were investigating lockdown-breaking parties at his Downing Street office and government departments.
Allegations that a string of parties were held at Downing Street while the rest of the country abided by the rules have shaken Johnson’s government, prompting the worst crisis of his premiership and calls for him to quit.
The latest revelations came on Monday night and saw claims that Johnson broke lockdown rules by having a birthday party at Downing Street on June 19, 2020. Up to 30 people were present, ITV News alleged. At the time, social gatherings were only permitted between six people outside.
London’s Metropolitan Police have faced widespread criticism for refusing to investigate a steady drip of allegations over the last two years. The force’s commissioner, Cressida Dick, confirmed to the London Assembly that had now changed, raising the prospect of formal interviews and potentially criminal sanctions.
But she told the local authority: “The fact that we are now investigating does not of course mean that fixed penalty notices (fines) will necessarily be issued in every instance to every person involved.”
A senior civil servant, Sue Gray, has already begun conducting an investigation into the claims and is expected to publish her conclusions in the coming days. Speculation has swirled that she would have to pause her fact-finding probe if the police become involved.
“The investigation being carried out by Sue Gray is continuing. There is ongoing contact with the Metropolitan Police Service,” a Cabinet Office spokesperson said.
Gray’s investigation is understood to include the claims about the June 19, 2020 birthday party for Johnson. In 2007, Labour prime minister Tony Blair was questioned as a witness in a police investigation into a “cash for honours” row but no charges were brought. Johnson - Britain’s populist Brexit architect - has faced public outrage and charges of hypocrisy over the parties, given that millions of people abided by the rules he set. Many highlighted how they missed significant birthdays themselves due to social distancing, and were unable to comfort sick and dying loved ones struck down with Covid.
A tweet from Johnson re-emerged from March 2020 in which he told a seven-year-old girl she was setting a “great example to us all” after she cancelled her birthday party. London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan welcomed the police investigation. “I have been clear that members of the public must be able to expect the highest standards from everyone, including the prime minister and those around him,” he added.
“No one is above the law. There cannot be one rule for the government and another for everyone else.”
Dick declined to give a timeframe for the investigation or say whether the Met would be taking witness statements from police stationed at Downing Street. She also declined to say whether police would be examining security camera footage from Downing Street, where Johnson has both an office and a residence. “We will of course be going where the evidence takes us,” she said, adding that officers had been in “constant dialogue” with the Cabinet Office. Supporters of Johnson in his Conservative party have played down the latest revelations and the threat to his position, just over two years after a landslide election win.
Instead, they point to his success in securing Britain’s exit from the European Union, and his work on securing vaccines to combat Covid-19.
But Jonathan Evans, the head of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said recent government corruption and cronyism claims had the potential to undermine public trust.
He warned there could be a “political price to pay” if ministers and public servants ignored people’s expectations of behaviour.
“People do care about it and they do expect those people who are representing them... to be maintaining high standards and to put the interests of the public first, rather than their own personal or political interests.”
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