British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has more questions to answer after it emerged that one of his top officials sent an invitation to a Downing Street party to dozens of employees during the first Covid-19 lockdown in the country.
The email, from Johnson’s principal private secretary Martin Reynolds, invited more than 100 staffers to “socially distanced drinks in the No. 10 garden” on May 20, 2020, encouraging them to “bring (their) own booze” and “make the most of the lovely weather.”
At that time, strict lockdown restrictions were in place in England that banned more than two people from meeting outdoors.
The revelation deepens a scandal over a series of allegedly rule-breaking parties held in and around Downing Street that have sparked public fury, sunk Johnson’s Conservative Party in opinion polls and led to scrutiny over his position as prime minister.
In the email, first published by ITV News on Monday, Reynolds said: “After what has been an incredibly busy period it would be nice to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the No10 garden this evening.”
“Please join us from 6pm and bring your own booze!” the email added.
A source who worked in Downing Street at the time has confirmed the contents of the email independently to CNN.
The revelations led to another round of public outrage, which has been simmering since the first reports of a Christmas party inside Downing Street in 2020 were published last December.
Two-thirds (66%) of UK adults say that Johnson should resign following allegations that he attended the BYOB social gathering when England was under lockdown, according to a new Savanta ComRes snap poll, published on Tuesday.
And four out of 10 (42%) people who said they voted for Johnson’s Conservative Party in the last election said that he should resign, the poll found. That’s a rise of nine points – from 33% – in people saying he should resign in December.
Hannah Brady, a campaigner for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, said her father had died with the virus four days before the email was sent. “At the time, everyone would have known that going to a party was wrong, so how can those running the country have thought it was OK?,” she said in a statement.
“To think that whilst it was happening Boris Johnson was making the ‘most of the weather’ and throwing a party for 100 people, is truly beyond belief,” she added. “Could there be a more disgraceful example of ‘one rule for them, and another rule for the rest of us’?”
Mixing between households was at the time limited to two people, who could only meet outdoors and at a distance of at least 2 meters (6.5 feet). In workplaces, official guidance stated that in-person meetings should only take place if “absolutely necessary.”
The wisdom of organizing a drinks party during that period was questioned by some staffers who were invited, according to the BBC. One wrote to a colleague: “Is this for real?,” while another message said: “Um. Why is Martin encouraging a mass gathering in the garden?,” the BBC reported.
Johnson refused to respond to reports that he and his wife, Carrie Johnson, had attended the event when pressed by a journalist on Monday, saying only: “That, as you know, is the subject of a proper investigation by Sue Gray.”
Gray, a senior civil servant, has been tasked with investigating the alleged parties. She took on the role after Cabinet Secretary Simon Case was removed from the probe, following revelations that he had known about a party held in his own department.
Edward Argar, the minister of state for health, also deflected questions on the issue on Tuesday. “I don’t know what did or didn’t happen. All I’ve seen are the reports, the email that was reported yesterday, and various sources quoted by various media and journalistic outlets,” Argar told British broadcaster Sky News.
“That’s why it’s right that this is looked into independently by Sue Gray, and therefore it’d be wrong for me to comment.”
But Keir Starmer, the opposition Labour Party leader, said on Tuesday: “Boris Johnson, your deflections and distractions are absurd.”
“Not only did you know about the parties in Downing Street, you attended them,” Starmer added. “Stop lying to the British public. It’s time to finally come clean.”
And the Metropolitan Police, which has been criticized for refusing to investigate any of the reported parties, said it was “in contact with the Cabinet Office” over the event.
A deepening scandal
Johnson has faced multiple claims that social events were held inside 10 Downing Street in the spring of 2020 and the run up to Christmas that year, when local restrictions barred such gatherings.
When those questions began, Johnson rebuffed them by saying that no parties had taken place and his staffers and aides had followed the rules at all times. But since then a flood of allegations and leaks have shed light on several alleged gatherings.
Last month, a photo emerged allegedly showing Johnson drinking wine with Downing Street staff during a gathering that took place on May 15, 2020 – five days before the “bring your own booze” gathering was scheduled. The image, shared with the Guardian, shows staff gathered in the garden at Downing Street, which is also the Prime Minister’s residence. In the photo, Johnson is seen with his then-fiancée Carrie Symonds and two others seated at a table with bottles of wine and a cheeseboard.
A Downing Street spokesperson responded to the image saying: “Work meetings often take place in the Downing Street garden in the summer months. On this occasion there were staff meetings following a No. 10 press conference.”
Meanwhile a video of staff joking about a “Christmas party” in December 2020 that “was not socially distanced” prompted the resignation of Allegra Stratton, one of Johnson’s closest aides.
CNN established last month that social gatherings were indeed held on December 18, 2020, as well as November 27 of that year, and confirmed a Daily Mirror report that Johnson himself gave an impromptu speech at the latter.
A separate photo of Johnson hosting a Christmas quiz party at Downing Street that allegedly broke Covid-19 restrictions was then published by British newspaper The Mirror. A spokesperson said “the Prime Minister briefly took part virtually in a quiz to thank staff for their hard work throughout the year.”
Public anger prompted Johnson to call for an inquiry. On Monday, the Prime Minister would not elaborate on whether he had already been interviewed by Gray yet.
Angela Rayner, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, responding to reports of the email, said: “Boris Johnson has consistently shown that he has no regard for the rules he puts in place for the rest of us.”
“He is trying to get officials to take the fall for his own mistakes, but he sets the tone for the way Downing Street and the rest of government operates,” she added.
CNN’s Richard Allen Greene in London contributed reporting.