A long-awaited report into the Downing Street party scandal has blamed UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and senior officials for failures of leadership at the heart of the British government.
Mr Johnson said he had "learnt my lesson" after the final 37-page report by civil service investigator Sue Gray gave the fullest account yet of numerous social gatherings at Downing Street, saying it was clear some of them were not in line with coronavirus rules.
Embarrassing details in the report included a June 2020 leaving event that ended with one staff member being sick, people partying until the early hours of the morning, a Christmas party that left drink stains on a Downing Street wall and three cases where Ms Gray described excessive drinking by aides.
The revelations that senior figures partied while the public was banned from socialising outraged many people who made often harrowing sacrifices during three national lockdowns. The scandal left Mr Johnson fighting for his political life after opposition MPs claimed he had misled parliament about the events.
Ms Gray's report, which included pictures of Mr Johnson with food and drinks laid out at Downing Street, found that concerns had been raised about some of the gatherings but that staff felt unable to speak up and that security and cleaning workers suffered an unacceptable "lack of respect and poor treatment".
Mr Johnson told MPs he took responsibility for what had happened but defended staff who had worked long hours in the cramped conditions of the government’s townhouse headquarters. He said he had not known about the late-night events that went on into the early hours and apologised to staff who were mistreated.
He said a previous statement to parliament that rules had been followed at all times had reflected "what I believed to be true" ― deflecting the politically explosive charge of misleading MPs.
"I am confident with the changes and new structures that are now in place, that we are humbled by the experience and we have learnt our lesson," he said.
Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, said the report had "laid bare the rot that under this prime minister has spread in Number 10" and exposed how the sacrifices of British people were treated with "utter contempt".
"This report will stand as a monument to the hubris and the arrogance of a government that believed it was one rule for them and another rule for everyone else," Mr Starmer said.
The report found:
· Staff carried on drinking in Number 10 until the early hours of the morning on the eve of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, with the last departure recorded at 4.20am.
· Mr Johnson joined five advisers in a “food and alcohol” event in his Downing Street flat on the evening of the announcement of Dominic Cummings’ departure as chief adviser.
· Former propriety and ethics chief Helen MacNamara provided a karaoke machine for a Cabinet Office gathering where one individual was sick and there was a “minor altercation” between two others.
· Martin Reynolds, senior adviser to the prime minister at the time, boasted “we seem to have got away with” the bring-your-own-booze garden party in a WhatsApp message to a special adviser.
The report was handed to Downing Street on Wednesday after Ms Gray and her team interviewed dozens of people and examined emails, WhatsApp messages and Downing Street entry and exit logs.
Her findings were held back for months while the Metropolitan Police carried out a separate investigation, which resulted in Mr Johnson being fined over a birthday event and dozens of other penalties being handed out.
MPs on Mr Johnson’s Conservative benches have so far failed to muster the 54 letters they would need to trigger a leadership vote, and potential rebels will be closely watched in the coming days.
Supporters of the prime minister have sought to portray the birthday incident as a minor lapse and played down the significance of the scandal at a time of war in Europe. Critics are asking why Mr Johnson did not receive more fines.
"The events that I investigated were attended by leaders in government. Many of these events should not have been allowed to happen," Ms Gray wrote.
"It is also the case that some of the more junior civil servants believed that their involvement in some of these events was permitted given the attendance of senior leaders. The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture."
Ms Gray investigated 16 events between May 2020 and April 2021, including eight gatherings that led to people being fined by the police.
One event in the Downing Street garden in May 2020 went ahead despite Lee Cain, who was communications director at the time, writing in an email that a drinks invitation for 200 people was "somewhat of a comms risk in the current environment".
Another adviser said cameras and speakers would be near by after a press conference and advised officials "to be mindful of that". Mr Johnson eventually spoke to staff for about 30 minutes while they had drinks and pizza, the report said.
Weeks later, a senior official provided a karaoke machine during an hours-long leaving party that ended with one person being sick, a "minor altercation" between two others and the last guest leaving at 3.13 in the morning.
At Mr Johnson's birthday event the following day, sandwiches, snacks and cans of drinks were set up in the Cabinet room, although Ms Gray said the prime minister had not known about the event in advance.
Another leaving event, with drinks, in November 2020 was described as an impromptu gathering, but about 15 to 20 people attended. Shortly before Christmas, Mr Johnson read out questions in an online quiz, at an event where staff were advised to leave 10 Downing Street by a rear exit to avoid being photographed.
One of the most sensitive revelations concerned a party on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral in April 2021, where the image of a solitary Queen Elizabeth II touched public hearts and came to sum up the sacrifices of lockdown.
Ms Gray said two events had taken place involving dozens of people, in which music was played from a laptop, "a number of those present drank excessively" and a child's swing was damaged by people leaning on it. Some people stayed deep into the night and the last attendee left the building at 4.20am.
Other events did not get a rebuke from Ms Gray. She accepted that a photo of a different garden gathering in May 2020 showed a work meeting, and decided not to reopen an investigation into an event at Mr Johnson's private Downing Street flat in November that year.
The events in question took place while the public was subject to heavy restrictions, and Ms Gray wrote that "what took place at many of these gatherings and the way in which they developed was not in line with Covid guidance at the time".
"Even allowing for the extraordinary pressures officials and advisers were under, the factual findings of this report illustrate some attitudes and behaviours inconsistent with that guidance," she said.
"Many will be dismayed that behaviour of this kind took place on this scale at the heart of government. The public have a right to expect the very highest standards of behaviour in such places and clearly what happened fell well short of this."
Police said last week they had closed their investigation after issuing 126 fines against 83 people, linked to eight events. Their months-long inquiry took some of the heat out of the scandal and delayed the publication of Ms Gray’s findings, but new revelations in recent days again increase the pressure on Mr Johnson.
Photos were published on Monday of Mr Johnson raising a glass at an apparent leaving party, while witnesses on a BBC Panorama programme broadcast on Tuesday described what they said were regular social events during lockdown.
One recalled how staff had mocked a security guard who “tried to stop it all and he was just shaking his head in this party, being like ‘this shouldn’t be happening’”.