Boris Johnson is bracing for a shattering 48 hours that could define his premiership with the Partygate report set to be released as early as today.
The PM and his aides are bunkered down waiting for Sue Gray to deliver her findings about the swathe of allegedly lockdown-busting gatherings in Downing Street and Whitehall.
The level of criticism – and whether it is directed at Mr Johnson personally – will be critical to his chances of survival, after Tories held back from mounting a coup to see the results.
Allies have been desperately mobilising to shore up the premier, with Jacob Rees-Mogg warning that ousting him would almost certainly trigger a snap general election.
But even if he can stave off the immediate threat the police have already announced they are carrying out a criminal probe, which could see him become the first sitting PM interviewed under caution.
There had been hopes Mr Johnson could publish the top civil servant’s conclusions in time for PMQs, but that timeline appears to be slipping – although he could yet come to the Commons again this afternoon for what will inevitably be a marathon grilling from MPs.
There is also set to be a huge row about how much of the report is released. The Cabinet Office initially suggested yesterday that Ms Gray would hold off publishing until the Met had completed their probe.
But that stance was abandoned after Scotland Yard made clear they had no objection to the findings being issued in full.
In a round of interviews this morning, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss indicated that some of the report might be held back for ‘security’ reasons.
Asked if the report will be published in full, Ms Truss told Sky News: ‘We have been absolutely clear that we will publish the findings of the report.
‘We don’t know the content of the report, so there could be, for example, security issues that mean parts of it are problematic to publish. But we will absolutely publish the findings of the report.’
Ms Truss said the government had to acknowledge ‘public anger’. But she said: ‘I think the PM should continue in office. I think he is doing a great job… I support him 100 per cent.’
One Tory plotter last night claimed five more MPs are poised to call for the PM’s resignation as soon as the report is published.
A no-confidence vote is automatically triggered when 54 MPs send letters to the chair of the powerful 1922 committee, Sir Graham Brady – although he never discloses how many he has received before the threshold is reached.
The PM faces the most dangerous 24 hours of his premiership as:
- Mr Johnson faced claims that he kept news of the police probe from senior ministers when Cabinet met on Tuesday morning, leaving them to find out from the media when they turned on their phones as they left No10;
- Deputy Assistant Commissioner Jane Connors, the senior police officer leading the investigation into parties at Downing Street, is revealed to have been embroiled in a row over the policing of the Sarah Everard vigil;
- Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns defends Mr Johnson’s presence at a surprise birthday bash in the Cabinet room on June 19, 2020, saying he had been ‘ambushed with a cake’;
- Senior Labour figures celebrated the PM’s discomfort, with an ally of leader Keir Starmer saying: ‘This is very good for us’;
- Some ministers were unhappy after it emerged Mr Johnson did not tell his Cabinet in advance about the imminent announcement of a police investigation;
- Britons who share the same birthday as Boris reveal how they were forced to spend their day alone as the PM enjoyed a ‘party’ in No10 in June 2020;
- The PM’s official spokesman signalled that Mr Johnson is willing to speak to police investigating the alleged breaches of coronavirus rules over the past two years.
Boris Johnson (pictured running this morning) is facing the release of Sue Gray’s report into alleged Downing Street lockdown breaches as soon as today
Scotland Yard chief Dame Cressida Dick (pictured arriving at New Scotland Yard yesterday) announced that the force has now launched a probe into lockdown breaches in Downing Street and Whitehall over the past two years
The Prime Minister pictured hosting a Number 10 Christmas quiz while London was under Tier 2 ‘no mixing’ restrictions
A wine fridge is seen being delivered through the back door of Downing Street on December 11, 2020. The PM’s spokesman insisted he will ‘cooperate fully’ if required to be interviewed by police
Downing Street has conceded staff ‘gathered briefly’ in the Cabinet Room following a meeting after it was alleged 30 people attended and shared cake despite social mixing indoors being banned.
Former Cabinet minister David Davis, who called for Mr Johnson to quit last week, said today that the ‘nightmare gets even worse’
Criminal probe of partygate leaves No 10 staff facing serious legal consequences
Boris Johnson celebrated his 56th birthday with a party in the Cabinet Room in Downing Street on June 19, 2020.
It is alleged that as many as 30 people were in attendance.
Now the Met has launched a criminal probe into the incident, Number 10 staff face being charged with perjury if they knowingly make a false statement, which carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.
These are the Covid rules which were in place at the time:
– England was coming out of the first national lockdown, which had been imposed in March.
– Groups of up to six people were able to meet outdoors in England from Monday June 1, including in gardens and other private outdoor spaces, provided strict social distancing guidelines were followed.
– People from different households were told to stay two metres apart and not to spend time inside others’ homes other than to get to the garden or use the toilet.
– Indoor gatherings remained against the law, but there were exemptions ‘if reasonably necessary’ for work purposes.
The Government’s original Covid regulations which were put in place in March 2020 gave the police powers to hand out fixed penalty notices for breaches of the rules.
Initially, these fines were worth £60 or £30 if paid within 14 days.
However, the value of the fines increased in England from £60 to £100 on May 13, 2020, lowering to £50 if paid within two weeks.
Adam Wagner, a human rights barrister and Covid rules expert, tweeted today that ‘Fixed Penalty Notices are an alternative to prosecution – so generally the police gave FPNs first and if they weren’t paid they could proceed to prosecution’.
He added: ‘In this case it will almost certainly be FPNs rather than prosecution.’
In June 2020, social gatherings were limited to two people from different households indoors, and six people outdoors. There were get-outs for work purposes, but gatherings had to be ‘reasonably necessary’
The PM’s office had not received them early this morning, but their delivery is thought to be imminent and could see the report released after PMQs this afternoon.
The chairman of the Committee on Standards of Public life has warned that Mr Johnson could attempt ‘jiggery-pokery’ to dodge scrutiny.
Labour MP Chris Bryant said the PM was likely intending to ‘manipulate Parliament’ by depriving the leader of the opposition of time to respond properly in the House of Commons.
Sky News last night claimed that Ms Gray had been handed photographs of Boris Johnson next to wine bottles at an alleged lockdown breaking party, and has identified eight parties that breached the rules.
Many Tory MPs are awaiting the findings before deciding whether to submit letters of no confidence in Johnson that could topple him as Prime Minister and trigger a Tory leadership contest.
But potentially more serious for the PM is Scotland Yard’s criminal investigation into the parties which was announced yesterday.
Police sources told The Times that it was ‘inevitable’ that the PM would have to speak to detectives, making him the second sitting Prime Minister to be interviewed after Tony Blair was quizzed over the cash-for-honours scandal 15 years ago.
However Blair was interviewed as a witness – and no sitting Prime Minister has ever been interviewed under caution which requires officers to read them their rights before the questions begin. Reports at the time indicated that Blair would resign if he was interviewed under caution.
The final report, which could name senior political figures and civil servants, was likely to list Ms Gray’s conclusions but would not include a ‘significant amount of evidence’ from interviews, such as photos or messages.
Senior Tories last night called for a ‘sense of perspective’ over the ‘partygate’ row as police launched a formal probe.
They urged colleagues and critics of Mr Johnson to let him try to shore up the West’s response to Russian aggression in Ukraine and deal with the cost of living crisis.
Former minister Crispin Blunt said: ‘We’ve lost our sense of perspective on this. Everybody needs to take a step back.’ The warning followed a dramatic announcement that Scotland Yard will now investigate ‘potential breaches of Covid regulations’ at numerous alleged events in No 10.
But Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns faced ridicule for defending Mr Johnson’s presence at a surprise birthday bash in the Cabinet room on June 19 2020 when social events indoors were banned, saying he had been ‘ambushed with a cake’.
And Tory MP Andrew Bridgen said last night the ‘sooner the report comes out now the better’, adding: ‘We can’t sit under this cloud, paralysing the Prime Minister, paralysing the Government.’
Referencing the threat of Russian invasion into Ukraine, he continued: ‘These issues that are hanging over our Government at the moment, they need to be dealt with as soon as possible and I do hope that Sue Gray gets her report in tonight and it is published tomorrow.’
It is not clear whether Mr Johnson was personally involved in any of the the incidents under criminal investigation. The offences carry £100 fixed penalty fines.
Boris could be first PM to be suspect in criminal probe
Boris Johnson could make some unwanted history if he is interviewed by the police over Partygate.
It is unprecedented in modern times for a PM to be a suspect in a criminal probe.
Tony Blair was interviewed as a witness twice during Scotland Yard’s cash-for-honours affair in 2006 and 2007.
However, the questioning was not carried out under caution – meaning that he was classified as a witness.
At the time there was speculation that Mr Blair would have needed to resign if he was treated as a suspect.
The Met’s cash-for-honours investigation dragged on for more than a year.
But that probe required far more extensive evidence to be gathered than appears to be the case with Partygate, and the punishments were potentially far more severe.
The PM’s official spokesman signalled that Mr Johnson would be willing to speak to those at Scotland Yard investigating the alleged breaches of coronavirus rules over the past two years.
However, he said Mr Johnson believes he has not broken the law.
The chaos erupted on Tuesday after it was revealed that a birthday party, complete with cake and singing, was held for Mr Johnson in No10 in June 2020.
The police probe represents a step change in the seriousness of the situation facing the Prime Minister and senior staff at No10, who could face £100 fines, and, more seriously, the end of their political careers.
Despite a mounting Tory revolt, a slew of MPs gave noisy support to the premier in the chamber, branding the accusations ‘vexatious’ and asking why Keir Starmer was not under investigation.
During a hearing at the London Assembly yesterday, Dame Cressida pointed out that under guidelines police have not examined historical allegations of lockdown breaches unless there is clear evidence and a lack of a defence.
‘We have a long-established and effective working relationship with the Cabinet Office, who have an investigative capability,’ she said.
‘As you well know they have been carrying out an investigation over the last few weeks.
‘What I can tell you this morning is that as a result of the information provided by the Cabinet Office inquiry team and, secondly, my officers’ own assessment, I can confirm that the Met is now investigating a number of events that took place at Downing Street and Whitehall in the last two years in relation to potential breaches of Covid-19 regulations.’
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Jane Connors, the Metropolitan Police’s lead for Covid-19 who was previously embroiled in row over policing of the Sarah Everard vigil, has been put in charge of the investigation.
A Scotland Yard spokeswoman said: ‘The Special Enquiry Team will lead the investigations. DAC Jane Connors will oversee the investigation in her role as the Met’s lead officer for Covid.’
Who was at Boris Johnson’s lockdown busting birthday party on June 19, 2020?
The birthday boy: Boris Johnson
Sources close to the Prime Minister insist he didn’t know about the party, which legal experts believe was in breach of his own lockdown rules. Mr Johnson didn’t break up the party.
Downing Street admitted that the PM attended the event ‘for less than ten minutes’. But No 10 denied claims that the bash had been followed by a second party in the PM’s flat. Instead, Mr Johnson hosted a small number of people outside, including his sister, where food was cooked on a BBQ.
The organiser: Carrie Johnson
A source said members of Johnson’s team had been emailed in advance asking them to come to ‘wish the prime minister happy birthday’.
The Prime Minister was allegedly given a Union Jack cake by his wife. Reports said picnic food from Marks & Spencer was eaten during the afternoon gathering lasting for up to 30 minutes
Those present also sang a chorus of happy birthday. Rules at the time banned indoor social gatherings.
The uninvited guest: Rishi Sunak
Sources close to the Chancellor have insisted that he wasn’t invited by Carrie, but was arriving for the Covid meeting in the same room afterwards, attending very briefly. A source stressed he was ‘not invited’.
The interior designer: Lulu Lytle
Interior designer Lulu Lytle admitted attending while carrying out the lavish and controversial work to their flat above No 11 Downing Street, but insisted she was only present ‘briefly’ while waiting to talk to Mr Johnson.
Some claim she helped carry the cake.
Party Marty: Martin Reynolds
Mr Johnson’s under-fire principal private secretary, was also said to have attended. A month before he had previously invited more than 100 staff to a drinks party at No 10 on May 20, 2020.
No 10’s director of communications: Jack Doyle
Head of operations: Shelley Williams-Walker
Tory MPs are on high alert for more damaging revelations after it emerged that the PM’s 56th birthday celebration included a Union Jack cake, Marks and Spencer’s nibbles and singing.
The event, first revealed by ITV, was apparently already on Ms Gray’s radar. Earlier that day Mr Johnson had posed with his arms outstretched with children at a school in Hertfordshire to show the importance of social distancing.
In March, Mr Johnson had praised a girl named Josephine who wrote to him saying she was cancelling her seventh birthday while the pandemic was raging.
Getting to his feet in the Commons yesterday, Mr Johnson said: ‘A few weeks ago I commissioned an independent inquiry into a series of events in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office as well as some other Whitehall departments that may have constituted potential breaches of the Covid regulations.
‘That process has quite properly involved sharing information continuously with the Metropolitan Police.
‘So I welcome the Met’s decision to conduct its own investigation because I believe this will help to give the public the clarity it needs and help to draw a line under matters.
‘But I want to reassure the House, Mr Speaker, and the country that I and the whole Government are focused 100 per cent on dealing with the people’s priorities, including the UK’s leading role in protecting freedom around the world.’
Dame Cressida told London Assembly members that investigations were carried out for ‘the most serious and flagrant type of breach’ where there was evidence and three criteria were met.
‘My three factors were and are: there was evidence that those involved knew, or ought to have known that what they were doing was an offence.
‘Where not investigating would significantly undermine the legitimacy of the law.
‘And where there was little ambiguity around the absence of any reasonable defence.
‘So in those cases, where those criteria were met, the guidelines suggested that we should potentially investigate further and end up giving people tickets.’
Dame Cressida said that the police officers on site at Downing Street concentrate on ‘protective security’.
She said: ‘There are a number of officers posted in the surrounds of Downing Street and indeed what we call generally the government security zone.
‘They have a very clear role and that is protective security. You’ll be aware that the ones you see are all armed, and they have a job to do.
‘In relation to anything they may have seen or heard, or done or not done. Again, I’m afraid I’m not prepared to comment.
‘But I can assure you that we are carrying out our investigations and if that is a relevant matter, we will find out about that.’
Told that there must by CCTV of the alleged breaches in Downing Street, Dame Cressida said: ‘I don’t anticipate any difficulty in obtaining the evidence that it is both necessary, proportionate and appropriate for us to obtain in order to get to the right conclusions.’
The Met said it had carried out ‘detailed assessments of these outline findings’ from the Cabinet Office.
The force is investigating whether regulations were breached ‘during events at Downing Street and Whitehall on a number of dates’.
‘The MPS has written to the Cabinet Office this morning with a formal request for it to refer all relevant information gathered from its inquiry in relation to events on the dates in question to support the police investigations,’ the statement said.
Boris Johnson came out fighting in the Commons yesterday after police dramatically launched an investigation into Partygate