Boris Johnson is under renewed pressure over the question of Downing Street parties after an email leaked to ITV News revealed that one of his officials invited over a hundred No 10 staff to “socially distanced drinks” during the national lockdown in May 2020.
The leak reveals that the Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary, Martin Reynolds, wrote the following to Downing Street staff on 20 May: “After what has been an incredibly busy period we thought it would be nice to make the most of this lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden this evening. Please join us from 6pm and bring your own booze!”
Around 40 staff are reported to have gathered in the garden that evening, including the Prime Minister and his wife, Carrie Johnson. Guidance at the time forbade large gatherings and people in England could only meet one person from another household outdoors.
This is only the latest in a string of party-related scandals that have seen Johnson’s approval ratings plummet and have forced him to initiate an inquiry. But this is different for two reasons. Firstly, Johnson has refused to deny that he attended this gathering, because, the Downing Street line goes, he needs Sue Gray to investigate whether he attended a party in his own back garden, along with the other alleged rule breaches in Downing Street. The second is the sheer scale of the event: one hundred invitees at a time when the government was publicly decrying groups who gathered in the park (the Metropolitan Police have contacted the Cabinet Office).
Labour has recognised that this time feels different, branding the Prime Minister a “liar” for the first time. It also feels different for Conservative MPs. “It is pretty awful that this has all started up again,” one despairing Tory MP says, comparing Boris Johnson’s Downing Street operation to “Number 10 Animal Farm, with the public cast as the role of Boxer,” the naive and innocent cart horse. (There certainly is still no love lost on the Conservative backbenches for Dominic Cummings, who is cast as Snowball, the devious pig who turns on Napoleon, in the analogy.)
They, and the government, had hoped that the new year would see the Conservatives turn a page on this story and begin to refocus on delivery, with big announcements such as Michael Gove’s cladding strategy released yesterday. Instead, the story is closer to Boris Johnson’s door than ever. It is less and less clear how his approach of being outraged by the behaviour of Downing Street staff – and distancing himself from their behaviour during lockdown – is sustainable in the light of new evidence.