Boris Johnson “is going nowhere” and “retains the confidence of the people of this country”, a minister has claimed, as pressure mounts on the PM over Downing Street holding a “bring your own booze” party during the first COVID lockdown.
The prime minister and his wife Carrie are understood to have been among 40 people in attendance at the event in the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020, when outdoor gatherings were banned in England.
Answering an urgent question tabled by Labour about the party, Paymaster General Michael Ellis told MPs he has “confidence” in Mr Johnson’s “integrity and honour”.
Investigation to include alleged 20 May gathering
Facing relentless heckles and laughter from opposition benches in the Commons, Mr Ellis said the PM “takes this matter very seriously” and repeated that an investigation is taking place which will include the gatherings on 15 May and 20 May 2020.
Senior civil servant Sue Gray is leading the ongoing inquiry into multiple allegations of COVID rule-breaking in Downing Street and other government buildings.
“It will establish the facts and if wrongdoing is established there will be requisite disciplinary action taken,” Mr Ellis said of the investigation, adding that it “would not be appropriate” for him to comment further while it is ongoing.
To further laughter, Mr Ellis told the Commons: “It is clear that in this country the same rules apply to everyone.”
“The prime minister is going nowhere. He retains the confidence of the people of this country,” the paymaster general later added when asked directly if such a gathering in the Downing Street garden would have broken the government’s own coronavirus rules in place at the time.
PM’s absence ‘speaks volumes’
But Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner, who had asked the PM to answer the urgent question, said Mr Johnson’s absence from the Commons “speaks volumes”.
“I think his absence speaks volumes as does his smirks on the media, the public have already drawn their own conclusions. He can run but he can’t hide,” Ms Rayner said, adding that there is “no need for an investigation”.
“If the prime minister was there, surely he knew,” she continued.
In response, Mr Ellis said “there is a need” for an investigation “and that need is clear”.
“She asks if I have confidence in the prime minister’s integrity and honour, and I do,” he added.
Labour MP Dame Angela Eagle later quipped: “Perhaps it would be faster if Sue Gray were to investigate the days there weren’t parties.”
Speaking to Kay Burley on Tuesday morning, shadow climate change secretary Ed Miliband said: “The PM cannot hide behind this inquiry.”
“I think his position is very difficult,” Mr Miliband added. “I think we should take this one stage at a time – let’s hear from him. But how can he lead the country through these difficult times, get people to follow public health advice, if he has so flagrantly breached the rules?”
It comes as a poll carried out by YouGov today showed 56% of respondents believe the PM should resign from his role over the allegations.
A total of 27% of the 5,931 people surveyed said Mr Johnson should remain in his role while 17% said they don’t know.
MPs demand answers
DUP MP Jim Shannon broke down in tears telling the Commons of how his mother-in-law died alone and called for the results of the parties investigation to be released as soon as possible.
Echoing this request, Labour MP Afzal Khan said: “My beloved mum died of COVID in March 2020. She died alone in hospital while I sat in the car outside, trying to be as close to her as I could. Even burdened with our grief, my family obeyed the rules.”
Fellow Labour MP Chris Elmore added that he “almost missed” the birth of his son in January last year as he and his wife “followed the rules to protect midwifery staff”.
Mr Ellis said the findings of Ms Gray’s inquiry will be in the public domain “in due course” but that there is “absolutely no indication” that the PM knowingly misled Parliament.
Asked by Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey what he thinks should happen if individuals are found to have broken COVID rules, the paymaster general said “it is not for me to pass judgement”.
The Liberal Democrats have also called for an emergency session of the Commons Liaison Committee to question the prime minister.
A senior Conservative told Sky News that claims Mr Johnson and his wife attended a drinks event in the Downing Street garden during the UK’s first national COVID lockdown are “indefensible” and “as bad as it gets”.
“The fact that [Oliver] Dowden was telling people what they couldn’t do from one room then less than an hour later this was happening in the garden is indefensible,” they said.
PM told to ‘stop lying’
Meanwhile, Sir Keir Starmer has told the PM to “stop lying” and “come clean” about the “bring your own booze” event reportedly held on 20 May 2020.
Accusing the PM of “deflections and distractions”, the Labour leader called on Mr Johnson to be honest with the British public about the event which Sky News understands both the PM and his then fiancée attended.
“Boris Johnson, your deflections and distractions are absurd. Not only did you know about the parties in Downing Street, you attended them. Stop lying to the British public. It’s time to finally come clean,” Sir Keir said.
Earlier on Tuesday, Health minister Ed Argar told Kay Burley he “can understand why people are angry” about the new allegations.
Mr Argar told Sky News it is “not appropriate” to comment on what Sue Gray “may or may not conclude” in her investigation of the Downing Street party allegations, but that if wrongdoing is found, “appropriate disciplinary action” should follow.
Met Police ‘in contact’ with Cabinet Office
The Met Police have confirmed they are “in contact with the Cabinet Office” following the reports of the Downing Street garden drinks party.
A spokesman for Scotland Yard said: “The Metropolitan Police Service is aware of widespread reporting relating to alleged breaches of the Health Protection Regulations at Downing Street on May 20 2020 and is in contact with the Cabinet Office.”
Earlier on Monday, the prime minister refused to answer a question about whether he and his wife attended a Downing Street party on 20 May 2020.
“All of that, as you know, is the subject of a proper investigation by Sue Gray,” Mr Johnson said.
What allegedly happened on 20 May 2020?
On Monday, ITV News obtained an email from Martin Reynolds – a key aide to the PM – inviting Downing Street staff to “make the most of the lovely weather” with “some socially distanced drinks”.
The message on 20 May was sent to more than 100 employees in Number 10, including the prime minister’s advisers, speechwriters and door staff.
Around 40 attendees are reported to have gathered in the garden that evening to eat picnic food and drink.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, the PM’s official spokesperson said Mr Reynolds “continues in his role” and still has the full confidence of Mr Johnson.
What were the COVID rules on 20 May?
At the time of the alleged 20 May event, Britons had only recently been allowed to meet with one person from another household outside as long as they remained two metres apart.
Mixing with multiple households was still banned and groups of up to six people were only allowed to meet outdoors from 1 June.
On 20 May 2020, 363 more people were announced to have died after testing positive for coronavirus.
Oliver Dowden, then culture secretary, used a Downing Street news conference at 5pm that day – an hour before the planned Number 10 drinks event – to tell the public that “the vast majority of people” should be “staying at home as much as possible”.
On the same day, the Metropolitan Police posted a tweet to remind people they could only enjoy being outside if they were on their own, with people they live with, or on their own with one other person from a different household.