UK Covid live: Boris Johnson’s position ‘untenable’ if he misled MPs over No 10 parties, says Rayner

Good morning. Like many politicians, Boris Johnson normally lives by the dictum, “Never apologise, never explain”. (It’s a saying attributed to various people, but the best source for it I can find is Jacky Fisher, first sea lord in the first world war, who wrote in a letter to the Times “Never contradict, never explain, never apologise”.) But today, in relation to the reports that he attended a staff party in the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020, when the country was in lockdown and outdoor gatherings were banned, Johnson is almost certainly going to have to come up with some sort of apology and some sort of explanation. Yesterday No 10 was trying to stick to the line that it could wait until Sue Gray, the senior civil servant investigating all the partygate allegations, produces her report. But anyone following the Westminster news from yesterday for more than about 30 seconds will have twigged that that line can no longer hold.

Here is the Guardian story summing up the situation overnight.

Johnson will be in the Commons for PMQs at 12pm. Last night there was speculation about some sort of statement beforehand, but that probably referred to a plan to begin PMQs with a comment addressing the partygate affair, to gain some credit ahead of Keir Starmer’s first question. This is exactly what Johnson did on 8 December, when he was under intense pressure because of the release of the video showing Allegra Stratton, his then spokesperson, effectively confirming a separate lockdown-busting No 10 party (on 18 December 2020), and laughing about it, at a briefing rehearsal. (The latest allegation is much worse, for reasons explained here yesterday.)

The nature of Johnson’s explanation/apology may well determine how long he remains as prime minister. Obviously some people are likely to be more forgiving than others, but what will matter most for Johnson will be the reaction of Tory MPs, who have the power to trigger a confidence vote if they conclude this afternoon that he remains too much of a liability. Ultimately the public’s reaction will be more important (because that will shape whether Tory MPs conclude he remains viable as a leader), but it might take longer to assess what the public’s considered view is.

Given that some Tory MPs have said Johnson would have to resign if he knowingly attended a social party, Johnson is likely to argue that the 20 May event last year was essentially a work function, but in a garden, with alcohol. Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, has been doing interviews and she told the Today programme that this explanation would be implausible. She said:

I don’t accept that sending out invitations to bring your own booze – the weather’s lovely, come out into the garden – to 100 staff as work, to be honest. I think it’s very clear that that breaks the Covid rules.

Asked if she accepted that the No 10 garden could be seen as a workplace, Rayner replied:

Many key workers are NHS staff who were working very heavy shifts, 12-hour shifts with full PPE on – they didn’t break out into the garden with cheese and wine and bring your own booze scenarios.

They were working incredibly hard watching people’s loved ones die, holding smart phones and iPads in front of them so they could say goodbye to their loved ones – it is not acceptable to say: ‘This is a workplace garden, so we all cracked open the bubbly because it was a really nice day.’

Many people at the time understood the rules, and the rules were very clear.

Largely Johnson’s future will be determined by what he says at PMQs, but there could be other partygate-related developments today too. A few hours after PMQs on 8 December Stratton resigned. Martin Reynolds, who as Johnson’s principal private secretary sent out the invitation to the 20 May party, is widely expected to go at some point and it is quite possible that that could be today.

Apart from PMQs, there is not much on the agenda. Today the blog will be largely focused on Johnson and partygate.

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