Boris Johnson faces a crisis over the latest revelations after weeks of reports about alleged lockdown-flouting parties at Downing Street and elsewhere in government – and he is now at the centre of them with reports that he and his wife, Carrie, attended one such event on 20 May 2020. Here are some of the questions facing the prime minister.
Did he know the party was being organised?
An email leaked to ITV’s Paul Brand that has sparked the latest questions does make this seem likely. From Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s principal private secretary, it told No 10 staff: “We thought it would be nice to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden this evening.”
The use of “we” is notable – Reynolds is a civil servant rather than a political appointee, and it would seem curious if he made the arrangement without at least Johnson’s tacit acceptance – not least because it was being held in a space which is, among other uses, Boris and Carrie Johnson’s personal garden.
Who else was invited?
Reports say Reynolds’ email went out to about 100 Downing Street staff, with between 30 and 40 people attending in the end. People who were there told the BBC that the event involved a long table being placed in the garden, holding drinks and snacks, including crisps and sausage rolls. This appears, without any ambiguity, to be a social event – Johnson will need to say how this could happen.
Did Johnson and his wife attend?
Witnesses have told the BBC and others that both the Johnsons were there. The prime minister will be asked repeatedly about this, and how long they stayed. One of the curiosities of the case is that, because the garden forms part of their official residence, the couple would not have broken any Covid rules by having a social drink there – were it not for the 30 or so others also attending.
Did any other ministers attend?
The invitation appears to have been sent only to No 10 staff. However, Downing Street has previously confirmed that at the event featuring wine and cheese five days earlier, Matt Hancock, the then health secretary, was present. No 10 insists that the gathering was a work-based meeting after a press conference led by Hancock.
One minister particularly in the frame in terms of knowing about the 20 May event could be Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, given his official residence is also inside Downing Street. If he was at home that evening, he would be expected to have at least noticed several dozen people drinking in the garden.
What is Johnson’s defence?
So far, we don’t know. Johnson has not been sighted since the new revelations emerged, and the only line from ministers and the prime minister’s official spokesperson is that people should wait for the investigation into the wider issue of parties, which is being led by a senior civil servant, Sue Gray.
There is, in truth, little in the way of a credible defence if the narrative implied by the email is correct. At the time of the alleged party there were no specific regulations against distanced, outdoor work meetings, hence Downing Street’s argument that the 15 May event, later shown in a photograph sent to the Guardian, was colleagues gathering for professional reasons. Reynolds’ email would seem to demolish such a defence this time.
Might Johnson have misled parliament?
Labour certainly believes so. After the news about the Reynolds email, the party sent out a list of times when Johnson told MPs in the Commons, amid earlier allegations, that he had been assured that all Covid rules were followed. If it was known that Johnson attended the 20 May event, and that it was as described in the email, then the prime minister would appear to have been deliberately untruthful.