Partygate — a timeline of the Downing Street scandal

·12-min read
Partygate — a timeline of the Downing Street scandal

For a month, there was relative quiet. But this week, details of yet another Downing Street party emerged. If Boris Johnson had entered the new year hoping the Number 10 drinks fiasco would die quietly with 2021, he’d better think again.

The latest alleged bombshell tipping this story into 2022? That as many as 100 senior politicians and civil servants were invited to a ‘BYOB’ gathering in Downing Street’s garden in May 2020, when the country was still under the ‘no mixing’ restrictions of the first coronavirus lockdown. The allegations began flooding out yesterday (January 11), thanks to a leaked email from the Prime Minister’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, with thousands taking to social media to document what they were doing (and not doing) during that balmy May in 2020 (a clue: very little). The alleged gathering is now being investigated by senior civil servant Sue Gray, though the PM has now admitted he attended and has issued a ‘heartfelt’ apology.

So how many parties is that now? This week’s allegations come just over a month after the latest revelations in the ‘partygate’ fiasco: starting on December 5, when allegations emerged that Downing Street staff held a Christmas party under Tier 3 restrictions; that Gavin Williamson too held a separate festive bash for education staff; and that leading figures from Allegra Stratton to Jacob Rees-Mogg were caught on camera joking about it.

Many of the revelations are hard to keep up with — which tier was the country under when the party is alleged to have taken place? What were the restrictions at the time? And which ministers and ex-ministers have been accused of what?

Sue Gray, second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, is leading the investigation into lockdown-breaking parties across Whitehall (Gov.UK/PA) (PA Media)
Sue Gray, second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, is leading the investigation into lockdown-breaking parties across Whitehall (Gov.UK/PA) (PA Media)

The opening chapter of this Downing Street crisis begins this time last year, when London moved into Tier 2 (think: rules of six outdoors and ‘substantial meals’ at pubs). It was shortly after this that Williamson is accused of throwing his “reckless” knees-up, then MP Tobias Ellwood apologised for attending another party, before Tier 3, Tier 4, and the Johnsons reportedly hosting friend Nimco Ali on Christmas Day.

Struggling to remember how it all pieced together? You and most of the country. Here’s a timeline of the events so far.

May 20, 2020: No 10 allegedly throws ‘socially distanced’ drinks in the Downing Street garden

The Prime Minister’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, allegedly invites as many as 100 people to “socially distanced” drinks, writing in an email: “After what has been an incredibly busy period 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.”

Insiders say Reynolds regretted sending the email shortly after he sends it – but it’s too late. Despite concerns from Dominic Cummings and other senior government staff, he reportedly decides that cancelling it would be more damaging than going ahead because it would draw attention to the email.

Stock image from May in 2020 (PA)
Stock image from May in 2020 (PA)

The garden is said to be set up to encourage social distancing rules, with tables turned into a bar and guests encouraged to bring their own booze. More than 40 officials and aides start arriving shortly after 6pm, several stopping at the Tesco Express by Westminster station to stock up on booze. Gin, rosé, red wine and white wine are all said to be flowing, according to sources. The Prime Minister reportedly attends for 25 minutes before returning to his office, along with his then-fiancée Carrie Symonds, who has drinks with Michael Gove’s then-adviser Henry Newman.

A senior official reportedly jokes about the risk of drone surveillance (an admission that rules were being broken?) and there are official complaints about the state of the garden afterwards.

Covid restrictions at the time: Full national lockdown, people in England are barred from their homes unless there is a “reasonable excuse”.

December 10, 2020: Gavin Williamson throws a party for Department for Education staff

Gavin Williamson reportedly throws a party for two dozen of his Department for Education staff while London is under Tier 2 restrictions, banning social mixing between households. The former education secretary reportedly delivers a speech and there are drinks and canapes in the department’s café.

Gavin Williamson has been sacked from his role as Education Secretary (Dominic Lipinski/PA) (PA Archive)
Gavin Williamson has been sacked from his role as Education Secretary (Dominic Lipinski/PA) (PA Archive)

“There were lots of people gathered in the café area, mingling and drinking wine. It was just so reckless,” a source has since told the Mirror.

Covid restrictions at the time: Tier 2 (‘high alert’), no mixing of households indoors, but people can meet outdoors in groups of six - they can meet their friends at a pub, but only if it’s serving substantial meals. Last orders are at 10pm, with bars and pubs ordered to close by 11pm. Self-employed workers and freelancers without an office or other workplace who have a meeting that needs to be held face-to-face can meet a contact for a business lunch.

December 15, 2020: Tobias Ellwood attends a Christmas party in Piccadilly

Conservative MP and chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee Tobias Ellwood attends a “Christmas party” for 27 guests at the Cavalry and Guards Club in Piccadilly, just hours before London enters Tier 3 restrictions to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Former Tory minister Tobias Ellwood said he wanted to see the findings of a review into the Greensill lobbying affair (PA Wire)
Former Tory minister Tobias Ellwood said he wanted to see the findings of a review into the Greensill lobbying affair (PA Wire)

He reportedly makes a speech at the Iraq Britain Business Council event, which is described on the organisers’ website as a “Christmas party” for business purposes as permitted under Tier 2 rules.

At the time, government guidance states that “gatherings for work purposes are only allowed where they are reasonably necessary”.

Covid restrictions at the time: Tier 2 (see above)

December 18, 2020: Downing Street allegedly hosts a Christmas party

An alleged staff party takes place in Downing Street. The gathering is organised on a WhatsApp group and “several dozen” staff - some wearing Christmas jumpers - are asked to bring in Secret Santa presents.

The Christmas tree outside 10 Downing Street (Aaron Chown/PA) (PA Wire)
The Christmas tree outside 10 Downing Street (Aaron Chown/PA) (PA Wire)

According to the Daily Mirror, party games are played and food and drinks are served at the party, with revelries going on past midnight. At the time, the Tier 3 rules explicitly ban work Christmas lunches and parties where it is “a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted”.

Covid restrictions at the time: Tier 3 (‘very high alert’), no mixing indoors with anyone outside your household or support bubble, six people allowed to mix in some outdoor public places

December 25, 2020: Carrie Johnson’s friend Nimco Ali spends Christmas with the Johnsons

The Johnsons’ friend Nimco Ali, a prominent FGM campaigner and godmother to their son Wilfred, reportedly spends Christmas with the Johnsons at Downing Street at a time when lockdown restrictions in London prevent almost all household mixing.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie stand in Downing Street (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Wire)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie stand in Downing Street (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Wire)

Government rules state that it is possible for people to use a childcare bubble on 25 December, even in areas under the highest tier, “but only if reasonably necessary for the purposes of childcare and where there are no reasonable alternatives”.

Covid restrictions at the time: Tier 4 in London and the south-east, people must stay at home and not mix indoors with anyone from outside their household. They are only allowed to leave the house for specific purposes or if they have a “reasonable excuse” and can only meet one person outdoors.

October 18, 2021: Downing Street defends the Johnsons hosting friend Nimco Ali over Christmas

Reports that Ali spent Christmas with the Johnsons are revealed in Harper’s magazine, which claims she “spent Christmas with the couple at No 10 despite pandemic restrictions on holiday gatherings.” Both Number 10 and the Prime Minister’s spokesperson refuse to confirm whether Ali stayed with them, but deny that the couple broke their own coronavirus rules. “The PM and Mrs Johnson have followed coronavirus rules at all times. It is totally untrue to suggest otherwise,” the PM’s spokeswoman says.

Carrie Symonds and Nimco Ali (NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Carrie Symonds and Nimco Ali (NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The Prime Minister’s spokesman adds that Downing Street will not engage with questions about “individuals that the PM had over Christmas”. Instead, he refers reporters to the rules at the time, which stated that households could “continue to use a childcare bubble”, and insisted that “the PM and Mrs Johnson adhered to that at all times”. On Twitter, Ali also confirms that she “did not break any rules”.

November 30, 2021: Reports emerge of the Downing Street Christmas party in December 2020

Almost a year after the alleged events, the Daily Mirror accuses Boris Johnson and his Downing Street staff of breaking Covid rules by attending parties at Number 10 in the build-up to Christmas 2020. According to the exclusive report, Johnson gave a speech at a “packed leaving do” for a top aide during the second lockdown last November, and there was a smaller gathering on November 13, the night Dominic Cummings left Downing Street, “where [staff] were all getting totally plastered”.

Mr Johnson will be under pressure today at Prime Minister’s Questions (Justin Tallis/PA) (PA Wire)
Mr Johnson will be under pressure today at Prime Minister’s Questions (Justin Tallis/PA) (PA Wire)

The Mirror also alleges that a festive bash was held in Downing Street the following month, just days before Christmas, with around “40 or 50” staffers drinking wine and taking part in a Christmas quiz and Secret Santa. According to a source quoted in the newspaper, staffers were crammed “cheek by jowl” into a medium-sized room in Number 10. “It was a Covid nightmare,” one source tells the Mirror.

December 7, 2021: Footage is leaked of a mock Downing Street press conference in December 2020

A video obtained by ITV News shows the Prime Minister’s then press secretary Allegra Stratton answering questions at a mock press conference on December 22, 2020 about a party the previous Friday – the date of the alleged Covid rule-breaking gathering. Advisor Ed Oldfield is heard asking Stratton: “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night, do you recognise those reports?”

 (ITV NEWS)
(ITV NEWS)

Stratton replies: “I went home” before appearing to consider what the correct answer should be. During the rehearsal, filmed as part of a subsequently-abandoned plan for Stratton to lead televised press briefings, one aide is heard saying: “It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine.” “Is cheese and wine all right? It was a business meeting,” Stratton replies, to laughter in the room. Stratton then notes “this is recorded”, adding: “This fictional party was a business meeting … and it was not socially distanced.”

The Met confirms it will examine the leaked footage of aides joking about the party and Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer leads urges for Johnson to “come clean and apologise”. Meanwhile Downing Street denies the party ever happened. “There was no Christmas party. Covid rules have been followed at all times,” a spokesman says.

December 8, 2021: Gavin Williamson is accused of throwing a separate bash in December 2020 and Jacob Rees-Mogg jokes about the Downing Street party, Stratton quits

After the UK wakes up to (now-viral) footage of Stratton’s mock press conference, more shocking revelations emerge. First, a clip of House of Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg joking about the alleged party at a think tank event. “I see we’re all here obeying regulations, aren’t we?,” he says in the video published by political blog Guido Fawkes, showing him speaking at the Christmas party for the Institute of Economic Affairs. “I mean, this party is not going to be investigated by the police in a year’s time. You are all very carefully socially distanced... we have moved, I am pleased to tell you, from the metric back to the Imperial system: I notice you are all at least two inches away from each other which is, as I understand it, what the regulations require.”

Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg is under investigation by the standards watchdog (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)
Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg is under investigation by the standards watchdog (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)

The second revelation of the last 24-hours involves a separate party last December: that of education secretary Gavin Williamson, who the Mirror accuses of throwing a “reckless” festive bash during Tier 2. The Department for Education now confirms that the gathering did take place.

“On December 10, 2020, a gathering of colleagues who were already present at the office – and who had worked together throughout the pandemic, as they couldn’t work from home – took place in the DfE office building in London at a time when the city was subject to tier two restrictions,” a spokeswoman for the department tells the Daily Mirror.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

“The gathering was used to thank those staff for their efforts during the pandemic. Drinks and snacks were brought by those attending and no outside guests or supporting staff were invited or present. While this was work-related, looking back we accept it would have been better not to have gathered in this way at that particular time.” Health secretary Sajid Javid later pulls out of all national interviews, and just before 4pm, a tearful Stratton quits - becoming the latest of the PM’s advisers to resign amid a Covid-related scandal. Will anyone be next?

January 11, 2022: Details of the alleged Downing Street party in May 2020 emerge and an investigation is launched

New year, new scandal. This time: a leaked email showing the Prime Minister’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, inviting as many as 100 people to “socially distanced” drinks on May 20, 2020, when England was in a full lockdown

A number 10 adviser admits there was a “bunker mentality” at the time. “There was a sense that we had lashed ourselves to the mast while the rest of the civil service had gone home,” says one No 10 adviser. “The work people were doing in No 10 was of a high degree of importance and couldn’t be done remotely. Therefore what difference did it make given that everyone was cooped up in a decrepit 18th-century building where social distancing was impossible? Looking back on it we were deeply mistaken.”

Members of the public quickly take to social media to document what they were doing (and not doing) during that balmy May in 2020, from being locked into tiny one-bed flats to speaking to their elderly parents through care home windows. At PMQs, Johnson is forced to come out and apologise, admitting he attended the gathering for 25 minutes before returning to his office, believing it was a “work event”.

“With hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside. I should have found some other way to thank them,” he says in his apology to the nation. “I should have recognised that even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance, there are millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way, people who have suffered terribly, people who were forbidden from meeting loved ones at all inside or outside, and to them and to this house I offer my heartfelt apologies.

Sue Gray (Gov.uk) (PA Media)
Sue Gray (Gov.uk) (PA Media)

Senior civil servant Sue Gray launches an investigation into the events of that evening along with six other alleged parties in Westminster. It is understood that she will be given CCTV and police reports, as well as access to staff to interview. “The inquiry will be much more serious than anyone realises,” one government source tells The Times. “In No 10 they seem to think they can ride it out, that either she will do a report that they can ignore or that it will have no teeth. They’re wrong. The problem is the entire top brass is implicated. It points to systemic rot. Sue is fierce, forensic and has a real sense of right and wrong. She’s also a creature of the system.”

What will Gray find and will her investigation uncover any further scandals? The timeline plays on. Watch this space.

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