Boris Johnson hit with lockdown birthday party claims

Carrie Johnson organised a surprise get-together when indoor social mixing was banned, reports say

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing further accusations of breaking Covid-19 rules after it was revealed that a birthday gathering for him was held inside No 10 Downing Street during the first national lockdown.

His office said staff had only “gathered briefly” in the Cabinet room after a meeting, but a report from ITV News suggested up to 30 people attended "a birthday party" where guests were served cake.

The broadcaster suggested Mr Johnson's wife Carrie organised the surprise get-together, complete with a chorus of “Happy Birthday”, on the afternoon of June 19, 2020, when indoor social mixing was banned.

The latest allegations added to a torrid day for Mr Johnson as he continued to weather the "partygate" storm engulfing Downing Street.

On Tuesday London's Metropolitan Police force announced a criminal investigation into the party allegations in No 10.

As he awaits the release of senior civil servant Sue Gray's inquiry into the alleged No 10 lockdown parties, the prime minister's authority suffered a further blow on Monday with the resignation of Conservative minister Lord Agnew.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson poses with a birthday cake given to him by staff and pupils during a visit to Bovingdon Primary Academy in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire in 2020. After his visit he is said to have headed back to Downing Street where staff celebrated his birthday with another cake. Photo: No 10 Downing Street

Lord Agnew of Oulton, who had been the minister for efficiency and transformation, resigned at Parliament's despatch box and marched out of the House of Lords in protest over the party’s “schoolboy” handling of fraudulent Covid-19 business loans.

Ms Gray's report is expected this week with Mr Johnson's fate as prime minister hanging in the balance.

Earlier on June 19, 2020, Mr Johnson was given a birthday cake by pupils and staff on a visit to Bovingdon Primary Academy in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, to mark turning 56.

Lulu Lytle, the interior designer behind lavish renovations of his No 10 flat, briefly attended Mr Johnson's birthday celebrations while undertaking work in Downing Street, the Press Association reported.

“A group of staff working in No 10 that day gathered briefly in the Cabinet room after a meeting to wish the prime minister a happy birthday. He was there for less than 10 minutes,” a Downing Street spokeswoman said.

ITV News also reported that later that evening family friends were hosted upstairs to further celebrate the prime minister’s 56th birthday in his official residence.

“This is totally untrue," No 10 said. "In line with the rules at the time, the prime minister hosted a small number of family members outside that evening."

Soane Britain, the luxury design group, said its co-founder Ms Lytle was “present in Downing Street on June 19 working on the refurbishment”, the funding of which has been the subject of investigations.

“Lulu was not invited to any birthday celebrations for the prime minister as a guest,” a spokeswoman said.

“Lulu entered the Cabinet room briefly as requested, while waiting to speak with the prime minister.”

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is among those said to have joined the celebrations, Sky News reported.

Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer said the latest revelations were “yet more evidence that we have got a prime minister who believes that the rules that he made don’t apply to him”.

“The prime minister is a national distraction and he’s got to go,” the Labour leader said.

As Mr Johnson faced a new round of calls to resign, Environment Secretary George Eustice said the latest claims about a birthday party in Downing Street “have gone slightly over the top”.

He claimed a small group of staff brought in a birthday cake for the prime minister at the end of a day’s work and spent 10 minutes celebrating.

“I don’t think that really constitutes a party in the way that some of the more serious allegation would,” Mr Eustice told ITV News.

The broadcaster said that picnic food from Marks & Spencer was eaten during the afternoon gathering, which lasted up to 30 minutes, while Ms Johnson and Ms Lytle presented him with a cake.

Martin Reynolds, Mr Johnson’s under-fire principal private secretary, was also said to have attended.

During an interview with Sky News, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps appeared to play down the latest party allegations, saying the gathering took place “during a period of relaxed rules”.

He said Ms Gray was aware of the birthday party, one of a string of alleged gatherings she is investigating.

“Just to be clear, the prime minister clearly didn’t organise to be given a cake,” Mr Shapps said. “Some people thought it would be appropriate on his birthday.”

He suggested the gathering abided by lockdown rules because it took place in an office where workers were required to be.

He rebuffed questions about why the interior designer had attended the birthday given that she was not a member of Downing Street staff. “She was in the building, of course," Mr Shapps said.

But he said he did not seek to defend the party and he was “furious” with anyone who had broken the rules.

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, a staunch ally of Mr Johnson, questioned whether the gathering would have broken the rules in place at the time.

“So, when people in an office buy a cake in the middle of the afternoon for someone else they are working in the office with and stop for 10 minutes to sing happy birthday and then go back to their desks, this is now called a party?” she tweeted.

Social gatherings indoors were forbidden under lockdown laws at the time, with a relaxation of the regulations permitting up to six people to assemble outside.

About 17 allegations of rule-breaking events across Downing Street, the wider government and the Conservative Party have now been made.

Jo Goodman, co-founder of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign, said she remembered June 19 “vividly”, as it was the day before what would have been her father’s 73rd birthday, had he not died with the coronavirus.

“It was a horrible time for my family but we stuck to the rules, not even being able to hug to comfort each other,” she said.

“It’s completely sickening that the prime minister spent the evening sharing cake with 30 friends indoors and though we’re not even surprised any more, it still brings fresh pain.

"Whilst dozens sang Happy Birthday to him, families couldn’t even sing in memory at their loved ones' funerals.

“Regardless of any report, the prime minister clearly needs to resign. He’s lost all credibility.”

Updated: January 25, 2022, 11:19 AM