Ministers tell Boris Johnson to say sorry over lockdown parties or doom us all

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson has been urged by ministers and Tory MPs to apologise for a party in the Downing Street garden during the first lockdown at which he is said to have “gladhanded” guests.

Johnson and Carrie Symonds, his fiancée at the time, are both said to have attended the event in May 2020 and mingled with 40 Downing Street officials and advisers as people drank wine, gin and beer.

The Times has been told that one member of the government at the party joked about being caught breaking lockdown rules, asking how it would look if a drone photographed the garden. At the time people in England could meet only one other person outside and large gatherings were banned.

The party, which was organised by Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s most senior official, led to a backlash from cabinet ministers and more than a dozen Tory MPs, with many of them openly questioning Johnson’s future.

It leaves the prime minister’s reputation in the hands of Sue Gray, a senior civil servant who has been charged by him with examining allegations of lockdown parties in Downing Street. She is investigating seven events, and is not due to report until the end of next week at the earliest.

Johnson has repeatedly refused to say whether he attended the event and referred all questions to Gray’s inquiry, a position which will be put under further strain today as he attends prime minister’s questions.

One person who attended said that they had seen Johnson “wandering round gladhanding people”.

A cabinet minister said: “It’s not terminal yet — there’s still room for humility and a heartfelt apology. We’re f***ed unless we resolve it. Everyone knows this thing happened; nobody is disputing that.

“The row has moved on from whether the party took place to questions around denial and prevarication. PMQs will be agonising. We f***ed up. It doesn’t have to be terminal if he’s prepared to take his medicine. But it’s unquestionably done harm.”

Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, went further and said Johnson must quit if he went to the party. Describing the event as “utterly despicable”, he said: “You cannot put in place these rules, you cannot be the head of the government that is asking people to follow these rules, and then break those rules yourself.”

Ross said Johnson did not need to wait for the inquiry to “answer that very simple question” about whether he was present in the garden.

Thirteen Conservative MPs made their anger public. Johnny Mercer, a former minister under Johnson, said the party was “humiliating”. Caroline Nokes, a select committee chairwoman, accused No 10 of a “ ‘don’t do as I do, do as I say’ attitude”. Bob Blackman, a senior member of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, said voters were “rightly furious”, adding: “I am clear that those who set the rules must abide by them or face the consequences.”

Nigel Mills, MP for Amber Valley, said: “I would say anybody who organised or willingly attended a party at that time can’t possibly stay in [their] position.” Asked whether he thought whether MPs were considering sending letters of no confidence in Johnson, Mills said: “I think this is quite a dangerous time for him.”

Those angry included members of Johnson’s 2019 intake. Neil Hudson, MP for Penrith and the Border, said he was “appalled and shocked” at the party and called for “serious consequences” if rules had been broken. Robbie Moore, MP for Keighley and Ilkley, said: “I have no idea what these people were thinking.”

John Caudwell, who gave £500,000 to the Conservatives before the 2019 general election, said Johnson needed to “sort it out or step aside”. He criticised the government’s “perceived arrogance, hypocrisy and rule-breaking”.

Sir Alistair Graham, former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, told Times Radio: “If the facts are as we seem to think they are, it’s difficult to see how the prime minister can survive this particular incident, because people hate a breach of rules by those who make the rules, when everybody else is desperately seeking to keep the rules.”

A survey by Trends Research published at the end of last year found that over 80 per cent of SME business owners think Johnson has lost their confidence and should stand down. A third of Conservative voters said he should go.

Michael Ellis, the paymaster-general, defended Johnson in the Commons, saying: “[He] retains the confidence of the people of this country.”

The Independent said some officials had been told by superiors to “clean up” their phones before Gray’s inquiry. Downing Street denied this, saying: “Staff were given clear guidance to retain any relevant information.”

It was reported that Reynolds also attended a gathering in December 2020 with fellow civil servants in Johnson’s private office at which wine was served. The Daily Telegraph said it took place on the same night as an alleged party organised by press officers.

In the event Gray’s report highlights criminal breaches, Scotland Yard will consider whether it is in the public interest to pursue the issue. The force said: “The Met is in contact with the Cabinet Office in relation to this.”

Martin Reynolds, the principal private secretary to Boris Johnson, is supposed to be the quiet voice in the ear of the prime minister. He is Johnson’s key Downing Street fixer.

The Cambridge law graduate has been at the prime minister’s side for the best part of four years, dating to their time in the Foreign Office, which Reynolds, 53, had joined after a stint in the City working as a lawyer. The two men got on well together. When Johnson quit in 2018 over Theresa May’s Brexit deal, Reynolds also went into exile. In 2019 Johnson ousted May and summoned his lieutenant back.

Reynolds is understood to have already been angling for a return to the Foreign Office. There is growing speculation in Westminster that such a move could make him a handy fall guy for the “socially distanced drinks” held at No 10 on May 20, 2020.

Jess Glover, a senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, is thought to have the confidence of the prime minister and is among those being lined up to replace Reynolds, should he be asked to resign.