The UK's Downing Street has issued an apology to Queen Elizabeth II after it emerged that staff partied on the eve of her husband Prince Philip’s funeral during lockdown.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said it is “deeply regrettable” that the events took place while the nation was mourning the patriarch of Britain's Royal Family.
The admission and apology came after Mr Johnson’s former director of communications James Slack said sorry for holding a leaving party in Downing Street on April 16, 2021, the day before the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral.
“It is deeply regrettable that this took place at a time of national mourning and No 10 has apologised to the Palace,” a spokesman for the prime minister said.
“You heard from the PM this week, he’s recognised No 10 should be held to the highest standards and take responsibility for things we did not get right.”
Asked why No 10 had apologised rather than Mr Johnson himself, his spokesman said: “Well, again, the prime minister said earlier misjudgements have been made and it’s right people apologise, as the PM did earlier this week.
“It remains the case that I can’t prejudge the inquiry, which you know is continuing, which has been led by Sue Gray, but we acknowledge the significant public anger, it was regrettable this took place at a time of national mourning.”
The day after the party, the queen sat alone at her husband’s funeral, abiding by Covid-19 regulations under which the mixing of households indoors at the time was banned.
A picture of her sitting on her own wearing a mask in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle came to be known in Britain as one of the most poignant images of the pandemic.
Mr Slack, who last year left No 10 to become deputy editor-in-chief at The Sun newspaper, said the party “should not have happened at the time that it did”.
“I wish to apologise unreservedly for the anger and hurt caused,” said Mr Slack. “This event should not have happened at the time that it did. I am deeply sorry and take full responsibility.”
He said he could not comment further as the matter had been referred to the investigation being conducted by civil servant Ms Gray.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said it showed how seriously Mr Johnson had “degraded the office of prime minister” and reiterated his call for him to step down.
“This shows just how seriously Boris Johnson has degraded the office of Prime Minister,” Mr Starmer tweeted. “The Conservatives have let Britain down. An apology isn’t the only thing the prime minister should be offering the palace today. Boris Johnson should resign.”
Revellers 'danced the night away'
The gathering is the latest in a string of lockdown parties in Downing Street to come to light, days after the prime minister was forced into a humiliating apology for attending one such event. Philip, the queen’s husband of 74 years, died aged 99 in April 2021. The royal funeral was like no other because mourners were required to sit separately from those in other households.
The official period of mourning lasted until the day of the funeral.
The Daily Telegraph reported that a separate bash to mark the departure of one of Mr Johnson's personal photographers was held on the same night as Mr Slack's leaving party. It started off in the No 10 basement before moving into the garden to mix with Mr Slack's party.
The newspaper quoted a No 10 representative as saying Mr Johnson was not in Downing Street that day. He is said to have been at Chequers, the prime minister's country getaway.
Witnesses described how revellers drank and danced to music into the early hours of the morning.
It is claimed a staff member was sent to a nearby store to fill an empty suitcase with more supplies as staff drank into the early hours of the morning. One person is said to have broken a garden swing.
The Daily Telegraph said it had been told about 30 people attended the combined events.
At the time, England was in step two of the government’s road map out of lockdown, under which socialising was limited to groups of six people – or two households – outdoors. Indoor social mixing was not permitted.
“You must not socialise indoors except with your household or support bubble. You can meet outdoors, including in gardens, in groups of six people or two households,” the official guidance stated.
A Downing Street representative said Mr Slack thanked staff for their work both in person and over a video call.
“On this individual’s last day, he gave a farewell speech to thank each team for the work they had done to support him, both those who had to be in the office for work and on a screen for those working from home,” the representative said.
They offered no further comment on the allegations that a farewell gathering was also held for Mr Johnson’s personal photographer.
Meanwhile in a separate incident the former head of the unit that drew up the lockdown rules, Kate Josephs, said she is "truly sorry" for gathering with colleagues for alcoholic drinks in the Cabinet Office to mark her leaving the Civil Service, on December 17 2020.
Her taskforce was responsible for co-ordinating the Government's response to the pandemic.
'Do the right thing and stand down'
Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner reiterated her earlier calls for the prime minister to take responsibility for the culture inside No 10.
“The Queen sat alone in mourning like so many did at the time with personal trauma and sacrifice to keep to the rules in the national interest,” Ms Rayner tweeted. “I have no words for the culture and behaviours at number 10 and the buck stops with the PM.”
Andrew Bridgen became the fifth politician from Mr Johnson’s own party to call on the leader to step down over the scandal.
Mr Bridgen had been a loyal supporter of Mr Johnson, backing him for his leadership campaign in 2019 and campaigning alongside him for Brexit.
But on Thursday evening, the Tory MP joined the chorus of prominent voices calling for Mr Johnson’s resignation, announcing he had submitted a letter of no confidence.
Mr Bridgen said the prime minister’s position had become “untenable”.
“I’m calling on the prime minister to stand down, there is time yet to do the right thing,” he wrote in The Daily Telegraph.
Security Minister Damian Hinds said he was “shocked” by the latest party allegations but insisted he had confidence in the prime minister.
“This was a particularly sombre time, of course, for our whole country. The whole nation shared with her majesty in her mourning and ... everybody was so struck by that picture of the ultimate exceptional dignity of her majesty at Prince Philip's funeral.”
Mr Johnson was the right person to have at the helm of the government. “I am entirely behind the prime minister and the government, and I think the leadership that the prime minister has shown, particularly through the coronavirus, has been very strong,” Mr Hinds said.
Mr Hinds was questioned about the idea that a culture of rule-breaking exists among government ministers and officials.
“I don’t believe that there is, in the government, which I support and which I’m a member of, I don’t believe that to be the case,” he replied.
He admitted there had now been “many news stories” about many different parties held during lockdown restrictions and said he recognised “the response or reaction that people will have to hearing this story”.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said it “beggars belief” that government aides could have been partying while the nation was in mourning and under lockdown restrictions.
He said the picture of the queen in the chapel alone was “the defining image of the lockdown” which had become a “symbol of so many people across our country who were alone mourning the loss of their family members”.
“This is just beyond the pale,” he told Sky News.
Mr Davey said if Mr Johnson refused to resign over the scandal, it would show he had failed to grasp the seriousness of the partygate situation, and therefore “he doesn’t deserve to be our prime minister”.
“The Conservative Party and this Conservative government are coming into disrepute, because they’re unable to get rid of this terrible prime minister.”
Mr Davey said the prime minister had become a “laughing stock” and “the whole country just wants him to go”.
He said the public would likely be “staggered” by the Metropolitan Police’s refusal to investigate the party allegations at No 10. Earlier this week it emerged that officers in London were in contact with Cabinet Office officials over reports of the May 20, 2020, party. However, a formal police investigation has not been announced.
“How much more evidence do they need?” he said of the force. “Ordinary people across our country are looking in disbelief, and not just disbelief, they’re looking with hurt and with increasing anger.”