Life & Culture

No 10 party inquiry will reveal ‘farcical’ culture, say Whitehall sources | Boris Johnson

An investigation into Downing Street’s shutdown parties, which could determine the fate of Boris Johnson, is expected to uncover a “farcical” culture of drinking and impromptu socializing, with little oversight from senior officials, the Guardian understands.

Sources in Whitehall said the investigation, which was overseen by senior government employee Sue Gray, is also likely to reveal other beverage events across government buildings where advisers and private officials have been encouraged to “disclose” about breaches of lockdown rules.

Conservative MPs are eagerly awaiting Gray’s report, and some have already called on Johnson to resign after he was forced to apologize for attending the “Bring Your Wine” rally in Lawn 10 on May 20, 2020 – claiming he thought it was a “work event”.

The prime minister’s fate may now be in the hands of Gray, who is understood to be still gathering evidence amid allegations from the Labor Party that Johnson’s explanation and half-apology were unbelievable.

Johnson pulled out of a public engagement in Lancashire on Thursday after a close family member tested positive for Covid.

While self-isolation of contacts with coronavirus cases is no longer mandatory, Johnson’s spokesman said the prime minister will heed directives to limit outside contact as much as possible for seven days after testing.

In line with the directions, it reduces contact. They said it will operate from No. 10, running daily tests and limiting contact with others outside No. 10 and actually inside No. 10 as well.

Several Conservative MPs, including the party’s leader in Scotland, Douglas Ross, said Johnson should resign immediately after giving his version of the lockdown-disrupting beverage event.

It became clear on Thursday that Boris Johnson would not take part in the Scottish Conservative Conference in the spring – an unprecedented disdain for a British leader of the party. “I don’t see a way he could really be involved,” said a source from the Scottish Conservative Party.

Few other MPs publicly joined Ross’ call for Johnson’s departure; But many are now waiting for the results of Gray’s investigation before deciding whether they can continue to support the prime minister.

Sources said Gray’s team – which is based in the Cabinet Office – is still gathering clues about the bar parties in Whitehall. These include the alleged Christmas party and Zoom test in December 2020, as well as gatherings in the park on May 15-20.

Downing Street claims: What May 2020 looked like for the rest of England - VIDEO
Downing Street claims: What May 2020 looked like for the rest of England – VIDEO

The team is understood to be examining the culture and management structures within No 10. The sources said investigation staff believed the No 10’s structures were “comic”.

The disclosures, which will call into question the administration of Johnson and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case for Number 10, come as Johnson’s allies in Cabinet have taken to the airwaves to defend him.

The culture minister, Nadine Dorries, backed the idea that the prime minister may have done nothing wrong, saying his apology was about what the “public perceived” had happened.

She also said that the Downing Street park’s use of congregations was a good public health decision.

“I don’t accept that he’s wrong,” Doris told Sky News. What I support the Prime Minister in is his apology. He said very clearly that he understands the annoyance and anger people felt about what they saw happened, and what was reported. But what we all want is for the investigation to conclude.

Priti Patel, another staunch Johnson loyalist, appears to argue that the event at Park 10 was part of “a 24/7 government night of action at the height of the pandemic.”

“He was thanking the staff,” the Home Secretary told Sky. “Let’s not forget that it was May 2020, when there was a lot of work.”

Gray’s inquiry will assess why no one saw fit to stop the May 20 rally, after the prime minister’s private secretary, Martin Reynolds, sent an invitation to staff to “drink socially distanced drinks”.

Among the questions that will be asked is why no one felt able to “bleep the whistle” on Reynolds’ party invitations, even though many people believed they had broken Covid regulations.

The report is expected to display a series of factual data about the drink parties, when and where they took place, the number of people who attended and, most importantly, their goal. This will then be compared to the guidelines at that time.

In theory, Gray could recommend that Johnson be investigated under ministerial act. But if it does, Johnson will have to decide whether to launch an investigation into his alleged violations of the rules.

The Metropolitan Police confirmed in a statement that it will not launch its own investigation into the events that occurred in Downing Street in May 2020 unless Gray finds evidence of a rule violation.

“The Met is in constant contact with the Cabinet Office regarding this inquiry. If the investigation identifies evidence of potentially criminal offending behavior, it will be sent to the Met for further study.”

One former Cabinet minister has suggested that even if the prime minister is not explicitly convicted in the Gray report, Tory MPs may move against him, with elections to the main councils approaching. “We are heading for an absolute hammer in May. I think colleagues will want to act before then.”

Gray’s appointment to head the investigation came amid a climate of panic in Downing Street, according to insiders. The case fell in mid-December after allegations emerged of a beverage event inside his office.

A Tory adviser who attended meetings in Downing Street during the pandemic compared the building’s lax Covid security system with stricter rules elsewhere across government that have seen many people work from home.

“At number 10 they were told they had to take part: It was a completely different situation. That’s why Covid broke into this building. There was no testing, there were no bubbles. You can understand why the party is going on when you understand that broader culture.”

Another Conservative Party official who formerly worked in Downing Street said opening a bottle of wine on the desk was not unusual if people were working in the evenings, especially on Fridays.

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