Boris Johnson, Downing Street and lockdown parties: a breakdown of “Partygate” 

By William Upton and Kirsten Lenaghan

As the timeline shows, throughout all three lockdowns, Boris Johnson, Downing Street and various other offices and government officials were breaking the rules of lockdown: rules that they themselves had drawn up. Understandably, the British public was upset and frustrated, and many have called for Boris Johnson’s resignation. British politics can be very confusing for non-UK nationals and UK nationals alike, so here is a breakdown of Partygate.

News of “gatherings” breaks

At the end of November 2021, allegations began to emerge in the British media that there had been several secret “gatherings” held at Number 10 Downing Street throughout November and December 2020. This was when London was under what was at the time referred to as “Tier 3” restrictions, which did not allow groups of more than 6 people to gather indoors.

However, these allegations were denied by high-ranking members of government, with Justice Minister Dominic Raab stating that no parties were held and that these were “unsubstantiated, anonymous claims”. This was something echoed by the Boris Johnson’s spokesman on 6th December 2021 who maintained that “there was not a party and Covid rules have been followed at all times”.

From 2nd December 2021, England entered a tier system for Covid-19 regulations. This did not apply to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as these nations’ coronavirus restrictions are determined by their respective governments. At this time the following rules applied to indoor social gatherings:

  • Tier 1: Groups of up to 6 people could meet indoors.
  • Tier 2: Only those in the same household or “support  bubble” were allowed to meet indoors.
  • Tier 3: Only those in the same household or “support bubble” could meet indoors or in a domestic setting such as a garden. Those outside of a household or “bubble” could still meet in public places such as parks in groups of up to 6.
  • Tier 4: Only those in living in the same household or “bubble” could meet indoors or in a domestic setting. It was also only possible to meet with one person outside of your household or “bubble” in a public space such as a park.

A string of resignations

Yet, the next day video footage emerged of Downing Street Press Secretary Allegra Stratton at a mock press conference on 22nd December 2021, making jokes about a party held 4 days earlier. As a result of this video, Boris Johnson apologised in front of the House of Commons and announced that an investigation would take place, but he continued to deny that any parties had taken place. Despite this, at a tearful press conference on the 8th December 2021, Stratton resigned.

N°10 Downing Street: This is the Prime Minister’s official residence and executive office. Over time, it has gradually become more and more important and today it is one of the most important buildings in British politics

The resignations did not stop there though. In the following weeks, more images, accusations, and footage emerged, including that of two gatherings held the night before Prince Philip’s funeral, Queen Elizabeth’s husband. Since Stratton’s resignation, at least 5 governments aides, as well as former journalist and former Conservative Member of Parliament Shaun Bailey have also resigned amid the scandal.

The House of Commons Explained: Parliament in the U.K. is made up of the elected House of Commons and the unelected House of Lords. Those who are elected Members of Parliament (MPs) sit in the House of Commons. They debate on important issues within the U.K. and vote to enact new or change existing laws.

Queen Elizabeth II sits alone at the funeral of her husband, Prince Philip, as Covid-19 regulations in England required. (PA Media)

Were the Metropolitan Police forced to act?

Initially, London’s police force, the Metropolitan Police, refused to investigate the UK government. Instead, it was claimed that they do not investigate “retrospective” crimes, alleging that too long had passed between the Downing Street parties and them coming to light.

However, according to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Dame Cressida Dick, after assessing new evidence provided by the Cabinet Office, an investigation was launched on 25th January 2022.

The U.K. government is led by the leader of the ruling party. Currently, as leader of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson fulfils the role of Prime Minister. The majority of key decisions are made by the cabinet, a group of around 20 government ministers, chosen by the Prime Minister, to lead on specific policy areas such as health, education and foreign policy.  There are also 100 other ministers chosen to work within these key government departments.

The evidence in question was the Sue Gray report. After the first allegations surfaced, Boris Johnson ordered an investigation into potential parties during lockdown. Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, interviewed over 70 people and found that rule-breaking gatherings took place on 12 different days. She said that a lot of the behaviour was “difficult to justify”.

For many in the U.K., this is too little too late. Amy Smith is a 28-year-old and from Birmingham who, due to a medical condition, was forced to shield during the height of the pandemic. She was left dismayed with the initial response from the police. “If the police don’t investigate crimes after they have happened then what exactly do they do? They can’t refuse to investigate a murder because it happened in the past.”

This is a sentiment echoed by the public. It’s clear that confidence in the Metropolitan Police, and its commissioner in particular, has been severely damaged by its response to the scandal. The fact that whilst those at a vigil, held for a woman who had been murdered by a serving London police officer, were arrested whilst those in power were partying is something which only adds to the feelings of betrayal.

The Public Response

Across the United Kingdom, it’s clear that the fact that, whilst they were struggling to live through successive lockdowns, isolated from loved ones, those in power were not only partying but also making jokes about these parties has left people angry.

Political activist and social media personality David Lowther, also known as @Daviemoo, is disgusted. “Knowing that I’d abided by the rules and sacrificed whilst those in charge of our government couldn’t be bothered to sacrifice too made me furious. It enraged me that they were risking spreading the virus with their selfish behaviour”. He believes that the British government is no longer fit for purpose and that there is an urgent need for them to be democratically removed from power.

Conrad Price, a 23 year old man from Wales who was fined during lockdown for attending a gathering of seven people is also fed up with the government. “It’s one rule for them and another one for us. How can these be the people making the rules if they can’t stick by them in a terrible global pandemic?” He went on to say “They’re hypocrites and I feel betrayed!”

What next?

As the public and politicians alike are calling for his resignation, will Boris Johnson resign from his position as prime minister? No, almost definitely not. Of course, you cannot be completely sure, but Johnson has clearly shown that he does not want to resign. While many resignations are being handed in all around him, Johnson has promised that he “gets it and will fix it”, so these are unlikely to pressure him even more and he can instead point to them as him “shaking up Downing Street”.

The Conservative Party: Also known as the Tories, is one of the two main British political parties, along with Labour. It is generally considered to be centre-right on the political spectrum and currently lead the country

Does this mean he will see out the rest of his term? Not necessarily,  because there is a course of action to remove a prime minister from office, called the vote of no confidence. Conservative MPs can send a letter of no confidence to the chairman of the 1922 committee. If 15% of Conservative MPs do send such a letter, then a vote is taken within the Tory party. If a majority votes no confidence, then Johnson is forced to step down and a vote for a new leader of the Conservative party will be held.

1922 Committee: the parliamentary group of the Conservative Party of the House of Commons, composed of all Tory backbenchers (MPs with no governmental office)

The number of letters sent in is known only to Graham Brady, the current chairman of the 1922 committee. Currently, 11 Conservative MPs have publicly stated that they have submitted a letter, and undoubtedly more letters have been sent in without being publicly acknowledged. As there are 360 Tory MPs, 54 letters of no confidence must be submitted to make up 15%.

Taken from YouGov data

As of right now, it is impossible to predict what will happen. Boris Johnson is no stranger to gaffes and scandals and he has an impressive ability to ride them and then come back stronger. As his approval ratings show, he fluctuates considerably in the public’s esteem. Recently, it seems the public is losing faith in him and too many Tory MPs are coming forward against the prime minister: a vote of no confidence seems inevitable. With every fresh piece of evidence, such as another photo of Boris Johnson at the Christmas quiz party, a vote seems more likely, however Johnson may still evade it. “Partygate” is far from over.

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