What does “partygate” refer to?  

Partygate refers to the allegations of gatherings and parties taking place in Downing Street and elsewhere in government during the covid lockdowns in 2020, which contravene the regulations in force at the time.  

Many of these parties took place in the run-up to Christmas 2020, although there are also events known to have taken place before and after this period. The parties were attended by a range of people, including special advisers, civil servants and potentially ministers. The prime minister has always denied attending parties or breaching covid rules, arguing that he believed that the events in question were work-related.  

What has the prime minister said?  

The prime minister, ministers and the official spokesperson have all consistently denied that Johnson was at any parties or that rules were broken. According to Insider, the government denied that the rules were broken 39 times in the first two weeks after the allegations first surfaced. [1] 

On 1 December 2021 he told the Commons that ‘all guidance was followed completely in No.10’. A week later the told MPs that ‘I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken.’ 

What investigations are taking place?  

The Cabinet Office launched an investigation into the allegations, initially led by the cabinet secretary Simon Case. However, it then emerged that an event had been held in Case’s office, so the investigation was taken over by second permanent secretary Sue Gray. The Metropolitan Police then also launched an investigation, building on the work by Gray and her team but involving separate email questionnaires and interviews.  

What do we know so far?  

On 31 January 2022 Sue Gray published an ‘update’ which set out which events were under investigation and some of her general findings, including that there had been ‘failures of leadership and judgement’ at the centre of government. However, she did not provide any specific details of who had attended which events or what they had known about them. 

On 29 March 2022 the Metropolitan Police announced that it planned to issue 20 fixed penalty notices for breaches of the regulations in Whitehall and Downing Street – meaning it has concluded the law was broken on these occasions. [2] The police are not providing details of who the notices will be issued to or which events they refer to, and they also said that further notices may be issued in future.  

Downing Street has confirmed that it will publish Sue Gray’s report in full after the police investigation has concluded. It has also said that it will confirm if the prime minister or cabinet secretary received a penalty notice, but that it will not publish the names of anyone else or require staff to inform their managers if they receive a penalty notice.  

What has the reaction been?  

The political reaction has focused on two aspects: whether the prime minister has misled parliament in his frequent denials of having attended a party and his statement that all events were in line with the guidance at the time; and the fact that staff in Downing Street and elsewhere in the centre of government were attending these events while placing severe restrictions on the lives of others. Knowingly misleading parliament is the only breach of the ministerial code that is explicitly viewed as a resigning matter. The code also states that ministers – like everyone else – must obey the law.   

All the main opposition parties have called for the prime minister to resign for his part in creating the culture in Downing Street that allowed the parties to go ahead and for what they argue are misleading statements. .  

When the police announced the fixed penalty notices, opposition parties reiterated their criticism of the government, with Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner saying ‘The culture is set from the very top. The buck stops with the prime minister, who spent months lying to the British public, which is why he has got to go.’ [3]

If the prime minister is fined, it would be without an obvious historic parallel. It would be a political decision by Conservative backbenchers on how to react. Several Conservative backbenchers have criticised the prime minister, with some submitting letters of no confidence to the backbench 1922 committee, although the threshold to trigger a leadership contest has not yet been reached. 

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  1. Dyer H, 39 times the government said no rules were broken in the first two weeks after the partygate allegations broke, Insider, 29 March 2022, https://www.businessinsider.com/39-times-the-government-denied-partygate-allegations-broke-rules-2022-3?r=US&IR=T 
  2. Metropolitan Police, Op Hillman – Covid-19 regulation breaches update, Metropolitan Police, 29 March 2022, https://news.met.police.uk/news/op-hillman-covid-19-regulation-breaches-update-445031  
  3. Sparrow A, Politics Live with Andrew Sparrow, The Guardian, 29 March 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/live/2022/mar/29/boris-johnson-partygate-fines-covid-party-met-police-latest-updates?page=w…
Update date: 
Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Original source – The Institute for Government

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