London police launch investigation into Downing Street lockdown parties

Probe announced days before an inquiry into the celebrations is due to be released

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London’s police chief has announced a criminal investigation into allegations of parties in Downing Street during lockdown.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday vowed to cooperate with police in any formal probe into the 'partygate' scandal which has deepened the threat to his position. The latest allegation concerned an event for Mr Johnson's 56th birthday in June 2020 when the UK was still facing restrictions for indoor gatherings.

Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police’s Commissioner, said it would “not normally be a proportionate use of officers’ time” to investigate retrospective claims of lockdown-breaking parties, but exceptions could be made.

The investigation was opened as a result of information from the Gray inquiry and “my officers’ own assessment”, Dame Cressida said.

Senior civil servant Sue Gray is also investigating the string of Downing Street gatherings.

The announcement will plunge Mr Johnson into deeper jeopardy as he awaits the publication of Ms Gray’s report. She is investigating allegations that a string of parties were held at Downing Street while the rest of the country abided by Covid-19 rules. The claims have prompted the worst crisis of his premiership and led to calls for him to resign.

He has faced public outrage and charges of hypocrisy over the alleged celebrations, given that millions of people abided by the rules he set.

Many highlighted how they missed significant birthdays themselves due to social distancing, and were unable to comfort sick and dying loved ones struck down with Covid.

A tweet from Mr Johnson re-emerged from March 2020 in which he told a 7-year-old girl she was setting a "great example to us all" after she cancelled her birthday party.

The Met has faced widespread criticism for refusing to investigate a stream of alleged lockdown-breaking gathering reports surrounding Downing Street. In December the force ruled out an investigation into an alleged Christmas party in No 10, citing a lack of evidence.

If questioned, Mr Johnson would be only the second sitting British prime minister to be questioned as part of a formal police probe. Labour prime minister Tony Blair was interviewed as a witness in a police investigation into “cash for honours” allegations. In 2007, officers concluded that no charges would be brought.

“As a result, firstly, of the information provided by the Cabinet Office inquiry team and, secondly, my officers' own assessment, I can confirm that the Met is now investigating a number of events that took place at Downing Street and Whitehall in the last two years in relation to potential breaches of Covid-19 regulations,” Dame Cressida told the London Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee on Tuesday.

“My officers have assessed several other events that appear to have taken place at Downing Street and Whitehall. On the available information, these other events are assessed as not reaching the threshold for criminal investigation.”

She said a formal investigation “does not mean that fixed penalty notices will necessarily be issued in every instance and to every person involved”.

The force wrote to the Cabinet Office on Tuesday morning requesting that staff hand over “all relevant information gathered from its inquiry in relation to events on the dates in question to support the police investigations”.

The police chief said the force would not provide regular updates on its investigation, only at “significant points” in the probe.

“I welcome the Met’s decision to conduct its own investigation because I believe this will help to give the public the clarity it needs and help to draw a line under matters,” Boris Johnson told MPs after the announcement.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick said allegations of parties in Downing Street during lockdown are subject to a criminal investigation. PA

He is willing to be interviewed by police if required, Downing Street has said.

“Anyone asked to will co-operate fully, as you would expect,” the prime minister’s official spokesman said.

Asked if Mr Johnson thinks he has not broken the law, his spokesman replied: “I need to be cautious about what I say but I think that’s fair to say that he does not.”

Ms Gray will pause investigating or publishing any party allegations that the police are looking into but is free to publish other matters in her inquiry, No 10 suggested.

“As the terms of reference make clear, they won’t publish anything that relates to the work of the police, there are a number of events and allegations that they have looked into that the police said don’t reach their threshold, which they are able to continue looking into,” the spokesman said. “And it is my understanding that they will be able to publish detail about those events rather than ones which the police might be taking forward.”

The prime minister did not discuss the police investigation with his Cabinet despite having been made aware it would go ahead before their meeting, No 10 has said. He was notified of the criminal probe shortly before the Met Police made the public announcement on Tuesday morning.

“That was confirmed by the police while Cabinet was taking place so he didn’t reference it specifically, he alluded to that at the end of Cabinet but beyond that, no,” the spokesman said. “He made those comments about ensuring the government is not deterred from getting on with the job, he didn’t go into detail about the Met given that Cressida Dick made her comments while Cabinet was taking place.”

Ms Gray’s investigation is understood to include the latest party claims to hit Downing Street. On Monday, ITV News reported that a birthday party was held in Downing Street to mark Mr Johnson turning 56 on June 19, 2020. Up to 30 people are said to have attended the event during a time when indoor mixing of households was banned. A maximum of six people from different households were permitted to mix outdoors.

The latest party claim prompted new calls, including from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, for him to step down.

The commissioner said the public should understand that the Met would not normally investigate allegations of lockdown parties retrospectively.

She said the force needed to channel its resources towards tackling violent crime and terrorism instead of investigating “as well, of course, as doing our bit during the pandemic”.

Dame Cressida said a probe would be appropriate if the following three thresholds were met.

· If there was evidence that those involved in the gatherings knew or ought to have known that they were breaking rules

· Where not investigating would “significantly undermine the legitimacy of the law”

· Where there was “little ambiguity around the absence of any reasonable defence”.

Downing Street sought to play down the latest accusation of a lockdown-breaching party in Downing Street, saying staff spent only 10 minutes wishing the prime minister a happy birthday.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is among those who are said to have attended, Sky News reported.

Martin Reynolds, the prime minister’s principal private secretary and a former ambassador to Libya, is also believed to have been present.

“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 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.”

Caroline Pidgeon, a Liberal Democrat member of the Police and Crime Committee, asked Dame Cressida whether photos and video footage of alleged parties would be analysed by officers.

“I don’t imagine any of the parties were silent discos,” Ms Pidgeon said. “We have seen pictures of people gathering in the garden over wine and cheese.

“As already mentioned, police on site probably would have heard drinking and talking in the garden, but also Downing Street and the area has so many CCTV cameras on 24 hours a day.

“Will those form part of your investigation that you’ve announced this morning?”

Dame Cressida said investigating officers “will, of course, be going where the evidence takes us” and said she did not expect any difficulty in “obtaining the evidence that it is both necessary, proportionate and appropriate for us to obtain in order to get to the right conclusions”.

Angela Rayner, Labour's deputy leader, said the prime minister had become a “national distraction” due to the “partygate” saga in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Millions of people are struggling to pay the bills but Boris Johnson and his government are too wrapped up in scandal to do anything about it,” she said.

Updated: January 25, 2022, 3:11 PM
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