Just 24 hours before he announced the first national lockdown in March 2020, Boris Johnson laughed off the suggestion that police would be deployed to enforce Covid-19 restrictions.
Now, almost two years later, he could be investigated by the police himself for alleged breaches of those very rules.
A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police told the New Statesman that evidence of “behaviour that is potentially a criminal offence” from the Cabinet Office investigation into alleged parties at No 10 Downing Street will be passed on to police for “further consideration”.
So far, the Met is “making contact with two people” who attended a gathering on 14 December 2020 at Conservative Party HQ in relation to alleged breaches of Covid-19 rules. The former Tory London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey resigned from the London Assembly last December when a photo was published that appeared to show him in attendance.
London’s police force is also “in contact with the Cabinet Office” as it looks into staff gatherings at No 10 and the Department for Education in November and December 2020.
So far, however, it has decided not to investigate the alleged Christmas party of 18 December: the scandal over which No 10’s former press spokesperson Allegra Stratton resigned last December, after a video was released of her joking about cheese and wine being served at a “business meeting”.
“All the material has been considered by detectives in detail and it does not provide evidence of a breach of the Health Protection Regulations, but restates allegations made in the media,” a Metropolitan Police spokesperson said.
“In line with our policy where we do not normally investigate breaches of these regulations when they are reported long after they are said to have taken place, unless there is evidence from the Cabinet Office or other evidence comes to light, the Met will not at this time commence an investigation.”
However, the barrister and founder of the Good Law Project, Jolyon Maugham QC, told the New Statesman that when he asked why it wasn’t investigating, the Met responded that it was “relying on the government’s assurances that no rules were broken”.
“What’s shocking to me, and seems to be profoundly corrosive of the rule of law, is that the Met’s operating a two-tier system for those in power and another for everyone else,” he said.
“If you were being investigated by the police and they turned up at your door, they wouldn’t go away because you said: ‘Don’t worry, officer, I can assure you no rules have been broken,’” he added.
“As soon as you look at how differently the police are treating these offences, you can see quite how absurd it is that the Met is adopting that course, and quite how profoundly offensive it is to our notions of equality under the law.”
The Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey wrote on 12 January to the Met commissioner Cressida Dick, calling on her to launch a full investigation into potential evidence of a garden party at No 10 on 20 May 2020, including interviewing Boris Johnson under caution. “Given Boris Johnson’s admission that he himself attended this gathering, will the Metropolitan Police commit to interviewing the Prime Minister under caution in the course of this investigation?” Davey asked in the letter.
The Met is now being sued over its decision not to investigate the alleged Christmas party gathering on 18 December 2020 by the Good Law Project.
This opens up the possibility of the High Court ruling its decision unlawful. While this wouldn’t compel the Met to investigate, the court could tell it to go back and reconsider the decision.
“We are pretty bullish about our prospects in this case,” said Maugham, and described the Met as taking “the risk of a court saying they behaved unlawfully”.
“I think that would create a real crisis in public confidence in policing.”
Maugham even suggested this decision is so inexplicable that the Met may have been told not to investigate. “It might cause you to conclude that the Met’s decision is politically driven, that it’s being intimated to the Met that it shouldn’t investigate and the Met is following those instructions.”
“I don’t know that that’s true, I just offer it as a plausible candidate explanation for what otherwise feels inexplicable,” he said.
The Met declined to comment on this point, but said regarding the Good Law Project’s action: “The Metropolitan Police Service received a letter before [the] claim on 10 December which we responded to.”
Over 17,700 people have been fined by London’s police force for breaching Covid-19 laws during the pandemic, including 113 fines for holding a gathering of over 30 people.
When it receives claims of breaches of these laws, the Met’s approach is to “focus on those that are live or ongoing, where police action can enable a change to behaviour that is posing a current public health risk”.
Yet a former senior Met insider familiar with the story told the New Statesman “a case like this is in a different league” to “Mrs A reporting Mr B” for past breaches that simply wouldn’t be pragmatic to investigate.