Partygate refers to the allegations of gatherings and parties taking place in Downing Street and elsewhere in government during the Covid lockdowns in 2020, which contravened the regulations in force at the time.
Many of these parties took place in the run up to Christmas 2020, although there are also events known to have taken place before and after this period. The parties were attended by a range of people, including special advisers, civil servants and potentially ministers. The prime minister has always denied attending parties or breaching covid rules, arguing that he believed that the events in question were work-related.
There are three investigations that have taken place or are expected to take place: one by the civil service, one by the police and one by the House of commons.
The Cabinet Office launched an investigation into the allegations, initially led by the cabinet secretary Simon Case, after being asked to do so by the prime minister. After it emerged that an event had been held in Case’s office, the investigation was taken over by second permanent secretary Sue Gray. She has completed her investigation but has not yet published a full report.
The Metropolitan Police investigation, known as Operation Hillman, looked at the evidence – including records from the time and photographs taken at the event – accrued by the Gray inquiry. The Met Police also issued email questionnaires to individuals believed to have attended the events. On 19 May, the Met published the final findings of its investigation, saying it had issued 126 referrals for fixed penalty notices (FPNs – effectively a fine for a breach of the Covid rules).
On 21 April 2022, the House of Commons passed a motion to refer Boris Johnson to the House of Commons Privileges Committee to "consider whether the Rt Hon Member’s conduct amounted to a contempt of the House". This investigation into whether he deliberately misled the Commons will not take place until after the Met Police and Sue Gray investigations have concluded.
On 31 January 2022, Sue Gray published an ‘update’ which set out which events were under investigation and some of her general findings, including that there had been ‘failures of leadership and judgement’ at the centre of government. However, she did not provide any specific details of who had attended which events or what they had known about them.
On 29 March 2022, the Metropolitan Police announced that it planned to issue 20 fixed penalty notices for breaches of the regulations in Whitehall and Downing Street – meaning it has concluded the law was broken on these occasions. On 12 April, the prime minister, his wife and chancellor Rishi Sunak were among a group of 30 people who received fines for attending a gathering for the prime minister’s birthday on 19 June 2020. The police also issued fines to Downing Street staff on 22 April. On 19 May, the police reported it had concluded its investigation, issuing 126 referrals for fixed penalty notices. Eight out of the 12 events that the police investigated resulted in FPNs.
Downing Street has confirmed that it will publish Sue Gray’s report in full after the police investigation has concluded. It has also said that it will confirm if the prime minister receives any further penalty notices, or if the cabinet secretary receives any, but that it will not publish the names of anyone else or require staff to inform their managers if they receive a penalty notice.
The prime minister, ministers and the official spokesperson have consistently denied either that Johnson was at any parties or that rules were broken. According to Insider, the government denied that the rules were broken 39 times in the first two weeks after the allegations first surfaced.
On 1 December 2021, Boris Johnson told the Commons that "all guidance was followed completely in No.10". A week later he told MPs that "I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken."
The week after the prime minister received a fixed penalty notice for attending an event on his birthday in June 2020, Johnson addressed the Commons on 19 April 2022. In his statement to the House, the prime minister said that to explain his "previous words in this House" that "it did not occur to me, then or subsequently, that a gathering in the Cabinet Room just before a vital meeting on Covid strategy could amount to a breach of the rules".
The political reaction has focused on two aspects: the fact that staff in Downing Street and elsewhere in the centre of government were attending these events while placing severe restrictions on the lives of others, and whether the prime minister has misled parliament in his frequent denials of having attended a party and his statement that all events were in line with the guidance at the time. Knowingly misleading parliament is the only breach of the ministerial code that is explicitly viewed as a resigning matter. The code also states that ministers – like everyone else – must obey the law.
All the main opposition parties have called for the prime minister to resign for his part in creating the culture in Downing Street that allowed the parties to go ahead and for what they argue are misleading statements.
The prime minister’s fine is without an obvious historic parallel. It would be a political decision by Conservative backbenchers on how to react. Several Conservative backbenchers have criticised the prime minister, with some submitting letters of no confidence to the backbench 1922 committee, although the threshold to trigger a leadership contest has not yet been reached.
As well as the prime minister being investigated, the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is under investigation for potentially breaching the lockdown rules. Durham Constabulary is investigating a gathering held in a Labour MP’s office on 20 April 2021, in the run up to the Hartlepool by-election in May that year.
At the time indoor gatherings were only allowed for work purposes. Starmer has stated that no rules were broken and that he and colleagues were simply eating while working late. He has, however, said that he will step down as leader of the party if he receives a fixed penalty notice. Angela Rayner, deputy leader, has said she will also step down if she is fined. We do not know how long the Durham investigation will take.
- Metropolitan Police, Met’s investigation into alleged breaches of Covid regulations, Op Hillman, concludes, Metropolitan Police, 19 May 2022.
- Dyer H, 39 times the government said no rules were broken in the first two weeks after the partygate allegations broke, Insider, 29 March 2022, www.businessinsider.com/39-times-the-government-denied-partygate-allegations-broke-rules-2022-3?r=US&IR=T
- Metropolitan Police, Op Hillman - Covid-19 regulation breaches update, Metropolitan Police, 29 March 2022, https://news.met.police.uk/news/op-hillman-covid-19-regulation-breaches-update-445031
- BBC News, Keir Starmer's Durham drink - what were the rules?, BBC News, 9 May 2022, www.bbc.co.uk/news/61334893