Serious doubt has been cast over the future of a Whitehall investigation into alleged Christmas parties in Number 10 after the man in charge of the probe was revealed to have been aware of a separate party in his own office.
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, the top civil servant, was this month tasked with conducting a probe into claims of parties being held in Downing Street and other government buildings last year in an alleged breach of COVID lockdown rules.
It came after a video emerged of Number 10 officials joking and laughing about a Christmas party said to have taken place on 18 December 2020.
But there have now been calls for Mr Case to be removed from leading the investigation after it emerged a festive event was held in the cabinet secretary’s own office in December last year.
There was a virtual quiz on 17 December 2020 for members of Mr Case’s private office.
Sky News understands the event was described as a “Christmas Party” in the diary and involved six people in the office – those who had already been on a rota to be in the office – and around six people taking part at home.
The event lasted an hour with people enjoying snacks and drinks at their desks.
Although Mr Case is said not to have taken part, he is understood to have walked through the office to get to his personal office and so was aware of what was happening.
At the end of the day, he walked out and thanked staff in an address lasting five to ten minutes.
On 16 December last year, London went into Tier 3 COVID restrictions, which forced pubs and restaurants to close and banned different households from mixing indoors.
Sky News understands Number 10 will soon issue a statement about the future of Mr Case’s ongoing investigation, raising the prospect he could have to recuse himself from being involved in the probe.
On Friday there were other allegations that Mr Case shared drinks with 15 to 20 staff in his Whitehall office in mid-December last year.
In an allegation reported by the Guido Fawkes website, it was claimed that parties were held in Mr Case’s office on two occasions last December.
Meanwhile, the Independent and Politico websites reported that Mr Case shared drinks with a group of staff at his office and in the waiting room outside at 70 Whitehall at a time when London was in Tier 2 restrictions, which also banned people from socialising indoors.
Mr Case was described as having been “in and out” of the alleged gathering.
There have now been calls for Mr Case to be suspended and his investigation into alleged Downing Street parties to be handed over to a judge.
The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford wrote to Mr Johnson to claim that Mr Case’s investigation had now been “fundamentally and fatally undermined”.
“The cabinet secretary’s internal investigation cannot be trusted and it must now be scrapped,” he added.
“The public cannot possibly have any confidence in an inquiry, led by someone alleged to have been involved in the very matter being investigated.
“Independence of review and absolute transparency is of paramount importance in this matter.
“It is clear that the prime minister must now ensure a judge is able to lead an inquiry that is independent and external of this government.
“This judge-led inquiry must act at pace and review all allegations of impropriety and rule breaking that have taken place across government.
“Given that the Metropolitan Police were awaiting the cabinet secretary to pass on any further evidence emerging as a result of your internal inquiry to determine any potential criminal wrongdoing, it is also clear that the police now must look again at the overwhelming body of evidence.
“Put simply, the public suspected this was a rigged, limited internal investigation and an attempt to dodge accountability.
“They now know that the person appointed by you to investigate was also involved.
“The time has come to remove this matter from government to ensure an inquiry that is transparent, fair and thorough and that can begin to restore confidence in a process that has so gravely undermined public trust.
“Given the serious nature of the allegations, it would be proper for the cabinet secretary to be suspended while the investigation takes place.”
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner also questioned whether Mr Case could continue to lead the investigation into alleged Christmas parties in Downing Street.
She said: “Boris Johnson as prime minister has set the tone for the civil service and the rest of government.
“Which each new revelation there is growing evidence of a culture of turning a blind eye to the rules.
“Labour made it clear when the investigation was launched that the person in charge should be uncompromised and able to make a fair and independent judgement.
“These fresh revelations put that into question.”
Earlier on Friday, Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden said he was “confident” that Mr Case’s inquiry into alleged lockdown-busting parties would “vindicate” Mr Johnson’s assertion that no COVID restrictions were breached.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Staff in the cabinet secretary’s private office took part in a virtual quiz on 17 December 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.”