What's Happening To The Investigation Into The Alleged Rule-Breaking Whitehall Christmas Parties?

Cabinet Secretary steps back from leading probe after gatherings said to have been held in Simon Case’s own department.

The Cabinet Office has admitted a quiz was held in the department on December 17 2020 – causing Cabinet secretary Simon Case to recuse himself from leading an investigation into gatherings across Whitehall.

Sue Gray, second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, will now lead the probe, which could be expanded to include any relevant allegation.

So how do it come this? How many parties were there? And why does it matter that even Ant and Dec are making jokes about it?

What happened in Downing Street last Christmas?

The Daily Mirror last month first to reported that a festive bash took place in No 10 on December 18 last year as London was under Tier 3 restrictions.

Those measures explicitly banned Christmas lunches or parties where they are “a primarily social activity”, as a government Twitter account pointed out to the public a day earlier.

As further sources came forward to confirm the party took place, reports said staff drank alcohol, wore Christmas jumpers and even organised Secret Santa gifts.

Downing Street bluntly rejected the allegations, with official statements insisting “there was no Christmas party” and no rules were broken. Boris Johnson told reporters: “I am satisfied myself that the guidelines were followed at all times.”

What about that video?

But soon after the prime minister tried to quell allegations of wrongdoing, ITV News published damning footage that gave increased weight to reports of the party.

Leaked video showed a mock press conference held between Downing Street aides and Allegra Stratton, then Johnson’s press secretary, on December 22.

ITV News
ITV News
ITV News

In the rehearsal for televised briefings that were ultimately axed, they discussed a supposedly “fictional” Downing Street party on “Friday”, which would have been December 18.

One aide was heard saying: “It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine.”

“Is cheese and wine all right? It was a business meeting,” Stratton replied to laughter.

She then noted “this is recorded”, adding: “This fictional party was a business meeting … and it was not socially distanced.”

Stratton quit Downing Street a day later. Johnson then agreed to an internal investigation, telling Prime Minister’s Questions he was “furious” about the footage. He tasked Case to report back to him “as soon as possible”.

Any other parties?

The initial revelations prompted a string of claims about parties and gatherings held across Whitehall while London was under restrictions limiting people from meeting indoors.

Here is a list of what has been alleged.

May 15 2020: Downing Street garden party

Johnson spent around 15 minutes with staff in the Downing Street garden, telling one aide they deserved a drink for “beating back” coronavirus, the Guardian and Independent reported.

Sources said around 20 staff drank wine and spirits and ate pizza following a press conference at which then health secretary Matt Hancock told the British public to stay at home “as much as is possible”.

A No 10 spokesman said: “On May 15 2020 the prime minister held a series of meetings throughout the afternoon, including briefly with the then health and care secretary and his team in the garden following a press conference.

“The prime minister went to his residence shortly after 7pm.

“A small number of staff required to be in work remained in the Downing Street garden for part of the afternoon and evening.”

– November 13: A leaving party for senior aide

According to reports at the time, Johnson gave a leaving speech for Lee Cain, his departing director of communications and close ally of former chief Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings.

England was in a month-long lockdown at the time when meeting people from other households indoors was banned, except for work purposes.

– November 13: Johnsons’ flat party

There are allegations that the prime minister’s then fiancee hosted parties in their flat, in what would also have been a breach of Covid guidance, with one such event said to have taken place on November 13, the night Cummings departed No 10.

Cummings, who has become a vocal critic of Johnson and his now wife, Carrie Johnson, since his exit from No 10, has called for the investigation into possible rule breaches to include the so-called “flat party”.

A spokesman for Carrie Johnson has called the claim “total nonsense”.

– November 27: A second staff leaving do

The Mirror said that while the prime minister did not attend the alleged No 10 flat party in December, he did give a farewell speech to an aide at the end of November, while the lockdown in England was still in place.

Other reports have said the leaving do was for Cleo Watson, a senior Downing Street aide and ally of Cummings.

The event forms part of the investigation which was ordered by the prime minister.

– December 10: Department for Education party

According to The Mirror, former education secretary Gavin Williamson threw a party and delivered a short speech at an event organised at his department’s Whitehall headquarters, which took place while London was in Tier 2, which banned any social mixing between households.

The DfE confirmed the social event happened but acknowledged that “it would have been better not to have gathered in this way at that particular time”.

This event is also covered by the investigation.

– December 14: Party featuring Tory London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey and staff

Shaun Bailey apologised “unreservedly” for attending the gathering at Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) organised by staff on his campaign team.

“It was a serious error of judgment at a time when Londoners were making immense sacrifices to keep us all safe and I regret it wholeheartedly,” he tweeted.

He quit his role chairing the London Assembly’s police and crime committee after the Daily Mirror published a picture showing him at the gathering.

The Metropolitan Police said officers will be making contact with two people who attended “in relation to alleged breaches of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations”.

– December 15: Downing Street quiz

The prime minister appeared on contestants’ screens at the quiz but insisted he broke no rules.

An image published by the Sunday Mirror shows the prime minister flanked by colleagues, one draped in tinsel and another wearing a Santa hat, in No 10.

Downing Street admitted Johnson “briefly” attended the quiz after the photographic evidence emerged but insisted it was a virtual event.

However the newspaper quoted a source who said many staff were huddled by computers in their Downing Street offices, conferring on questions and drinking alcohol while the quiz was taking place.

The quiz will be examined as part of the investigation.

– December 16: Department for Transport party

The Daily Mirror reported senior civil servants were “boozing and dancing” at the event, allegedly planned by staff from transport secretary Grant Shapps’ office.

A DfT spokesman said: “The secretary of state wasn’t involved in any gathering at the department.

“Fewer than a dozen staff who were working in the office had a low-key, socially distanced, gathering in the large open-plan office after work on December 16, where food and drink was consumed.

“We recognise this was inappropriate and apologise for the error of judgment.

What’s happened now?

The Guido Fawkes website reported on Friday that two Christmas parties were held in Case’s department, the Cabinet Office, in December 2020, when restrictions were in place.

The Times reported that one of the parties was held on December 17, the day before the alleged Christmas party at Downing Street at the centre of the saga.

The newspaper reported that the event was listed in digital calendars as “Christmas party!” and was organised by a private secretary in Case’s team.

Cabinet secretary Simon Case who has "recused himself" from leading an investigation into lockdown-breaking parties across Whitehall.
Cabinet secretary Simon Case who has "recused himself" from leading an investigation into lockdown-breaking parties across Whitehall.
Aaron Chown via PA Wire/PA Images

On Friday evening, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Staff in the Cabinet secretary’s private office took part in a virtual quiz on December 17 2020.

“A small number of them, who had been working in the office throughout the pandemic and on duty that day, took part from their desks, while the rest of the team were virtual.

“The Cabinet Secretary played no part in the event, but walked through the team’s office on the way to his own office.

“No outside guests or other staff were invited or present.

“This lasted for an hour and drinks and snacks were bought by those attending.

“He also spoke briefly to staff in the office before leaving.”

Case has now “recused himself” from leading the investigation following the allegations. A No. 10 spokesperson said: “To ensure the ongoing investigation retains public confidence the Cabinet secretary has recused himself for the remainder of the process.”

Who will take over?

The work will be concluded by Sue Gray, second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

Gray was director-general of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office from 2012 to 2018, and is seen as a Whitehall heavy hitter who would not pull any punches in an inquiry.

She oversaw the Plebgate inquiry in 2012 after former chief whip Andrew Mitchell was accused of calling a policeman a “pleb” at the Downing Street gates, and was once described as “deputy God” by then Labour MP Paul Flynn in a meeting of Parliament’s Public Administration Committee the same year.

Former Tory MP and Cabinet office minister Oliver Letwin is reported to have said of Gray: “It took me precisely two years before I realised who it is that runs Britain. Our great United Kingdom is actually entirely run by a lady called Sue Gray, the head of ethics or something in the Cabinet Office. Unless she agrees, things just don’t happen.”

She was once described by BBC Newsnight’s then policy editor as “the most powerful person you’ve never heard of”.

What has been the reaction?

Of Case’s departure, Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “With each revelation, there is more evidence of a culture of turning a blind eye to the rules.

“Labour made it clear the person leading the investigation should be uncompromised, free to make an independent judgment.”

The Metropolitan Police has previously said it would not launch an investigation, arguing this was in line with its “policy not to investigate retrospective breaches” and the current “absence of evidence”.

Many Conservative backbenchers have voiced their anger over the affair, but if anyone in government truly believed the impact of the story would not extend past the “Westminster bubble” then polling suggested otherwise. Snap polls released have suggested over half of UK voters believe the prime minister should resign over the affair.

Not only did the saga lead TV bulletins, I’m A Celebrity co-hosts Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly have mocked Johnson over the party.

In what political commentators like to call “cut through”, the comedy duo used a segue to say that contestants “categorically deny” any suggestion they had a party in the Welsh castle.

While introducing the next segment on I’m A Celebrity, Donnelly said: “It is all changing in camp now because yesterday the celebs chose a new leader via the gift of a secret vote.”

McPartlin continued: “And that means David’s reign is over. But they weren’t celebrating. They categorically deny any suggestions that they had a party.

“And this fictional party definitely didn’t involve cheese and wine, or a Secret Santa.”

Donnelly then looked directly into the camera and said: “Evening prime minister… for now.”


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