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PMQs: Boris Johnson apologises but claims BYOB Downing Street lockdown party was 'technically in the rules'

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Kent MPs have slammed Boris Johnson after his apology following the lockdown-busting Downing Street 'bring your own booze' garden party held to celebrate the "lovely weather" at the height of lockdown.

Mr Johnson shared his "heartfelt apologies" after admitting he spent 25 minutes at the gathering on May 20 last year.

Boris Johnson apologising in parliament

But this wasn't enough to satisfy Tory MPs in Kent.

North Thanet's Sir Roger Gale, a vocal critic of the PM, made the comments on Radio 4 after tweeting that Johnson was "on very thin ice" following his PMQs apology.

And Maidstone and The Weald MP Helen Grant MP says his apology has done "little to quell her concern".

So far 12 illegal parties are alleged to have taken place across government between May and December 2020.

In the latest scandal an email has been leaked showing Boris Johnson's principal private secretary Martin Reynolds invited more than 100 Downing Street employees to a "bring your own booze" garden gathering to "make the most of the lovely weather".

At the time the public were banned from socialising and funerals were limited to just a handful of guests.

During Prime Minster Questions today, Mr Johnson began by apologising to the house. He said: "I know millions of people have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months. I know the anguish they have been through unable to mourn their relatives, unable to live their lives as they want or do the things they love.

"And I know the rage they feel with me, and with the government I lead when they think in Downing Street itself the rules are not being followed by the people who make the rules

"Although I can not anticipate the conclusions of the inquiry I have learned enough to know there are things that we did not get right.

"And I must take responsibility. Number 10 is a big department with the garden as an extention of the office which has been in constant use.

"When I went into that garden just after 6 on May 20, to thank groups of staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later I believed implicitly that this was a work event.

"But in hindsight, I should have sent everyone inside and found another way to thank them. Even if it technically fell with in the guidance there would be millions of people who simply would not see it that way. People who suffered terribly. People who were forbidden from meeting loved ones at all - inside or outside. And to them and this house I offer my heartfelt apologies.

"All I ask is that Sue Gray be allowed to complete her inquiry in to that day so full facts can be established."

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. Picture: PA
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. Picture: PA

In the House of Commons Keir Starmer made his first in-person appearance since having to isolate with coronavirus a week ago to question the Prime Minister over the latest scandal to envelop his premiership.

His first question, after calling the Prime Minister "a pathetic spectacle of a man", was "will you resign?" to which Mr Johnson told him not to pre-empt the inquiry.

"That apology was worthless. Yesterday, in this chamber honourable members told heart-wrenching stories of their experiences.

"Is the PM so contentious of the public that he thinks he can ride this out?" Starmer said.

Johnson said: "I bitterly regret the way we have done things and I continue to apologise. He must wait for the inquiry."

Starmer cited Matt Hancock and Allegra Stratton who both resigned over recent scandals.

But Johnson again said "I accept we have done things wrong" before saying " a lawyer should accept the facts of the inquiry."

Starmer called his denials "ridiculous" and points him to the ministerial code. "Will his party kick him out? Will the British Public kick him out? Or will he do the decent thing and resign." Mr Johnson again says he should wait for the inquiry adding "I wish things would have happened differently."

Around 40 people allegedly attended the soirée on May 20, more than a week before the rule of six was brought in.

Boris Johnson and wife Carrie are reported by multiple sources, including former right hand man Dominic Cummings, to have attended.

The disclosure triggered a new wave of public anger following the reports last year of parties in the run up to Christmas 2020, with Tory MPs openly warning Johnson his position will be untenable if he has been shown to have lied.

Johnson had up to today refused to say if he was present at the event.

He has said it is a matter for Sue Gray, the senior civil servant who is investigating a series of reported parties in Downing Street and elsewhere in Whitehall in the course of 2020 to determine what happened.

Meanwhile more than 24 hours after they were asked to comment on the scandal the vast majority of Kent's 16 Tory MPs have maintained radio silence.

Following PMQs, Sir Roger Gale, the North Thanet MP who has for some time been openly critical of Johnson, tweeted: "‘Bring a bottle’ to a ‘work event’ is a novel idea! Very thin ice indeed."

Speaking to Radio 4's World at One this afternoon, Sir Roger described the Prime Minister as "a dead man walking".

MP Sir Roger Gale said: "I agree with the PM that it would have been good if Sue Gray had been allowed to complete her inquiry without people like me drawing our own premature conclusions, but unfortunately what the Prime Minister has said today has left people like me in an impossible situation.

"We now know that the PM spent 25 minutes at a 'bring a bottle' work event.

"I'm sorry, the Prime Minister said on December 8 in the house at the dispatch box that he had been repeatedly insured that these allegations were unfounded and that there was no party and no Covid rules were broken.

"But we now know that the Prime Minister spent 25 minutes at what was quite clearly a party.

"And that means that he misled the house.

"I've spent the last 48 hours saying what I was not going to comment publicly until Sue Gray was able to comment herself and release the results of her inquiry, but I think what's been said at the dispatch box today puts a different slant on that completely. And I feel that it is now going to have to be the work of the 1922 committee to determine precisely how we proceed."

Sir Roger has himself submitted a formal letter to the chairman of the 22 C - the Conservative Private Members' Committee - calling for a Leadership Election.

He says he has "no idea" how many other members have submitted similar letters.

He added: "What I do know is if you look at the Twitter-sphere after the Prime Minister's Question Time today it sounds to me very much as if politically the prime minster is a dead man walking."

Asked if he feels the Prime Minister should resign, he responded: "I don't think he will."

When pressed further he added: "I think that is a matter for him, but I suspect that in the short order Miss Gray will produce her report and we shall then have the opportunity to question this further but I believe in the meantime the backbench has been placed in an impossible position, and I think this is now an issue the 1922 committee has to deal with."

When asked on her thoughts regarding the gathering after the Prime Minister's apology, Maidstone and The Weald MP Helen Grant said: "Being mindful of the enormous personal sacrifices that so many have made through the pandemic, I share the outrage felt by people across the country.

"I was particularly angry to receive yesterday’s reports of 100 email invitations being sent out for a ‘Bring Your Own Bottle’ event in the garden at Number 10, where the Prime Minister himself has admitted he was in attendance.

"I am afraid that his apology at Prime Minister’s Questions today has done little to quell my extreme concern over this very sorry state of affairs.

"It is now in the hands of Sue Gray to independently investigate these reports. Ms Gray is no stranger to impartially, holding Ministers to account in her former role as Director-General of Propriety and Ethics, and I await her conclusions in due course.

"If it is found that the rules in place at the time were broken, I have been assured that appropriate disciplinary action will follow for all of those who were involved."

Chatham and Aylesford MP Tracey Crouch, who also shared her anger at the revelations before Christmas, said: “People are understandably exceptionally cross that at a time when they were following strict rules, and in some cases not being at the bedside of those who were dying or extremely ill, that drinks events were happening in Downing Street.

"I thought the Prime Minister’s statement today was the right one to make, but perhaps he should have made it before Christmas.

"He has asked for people to wait for the outcome of the independent investigation which is fine as long as it isn’t delayed and published in full, not least because I am, like most MPs, trying to do my job of dealing with delicate cases for individuals and wider issues for the communities I represent."

Damian Collins MP said: "I completely understand the anger this causes and I know many people rightly feel angry and upset. I cannot and do not defend holding a party which was not allowed by the regulations at the time. I was not present at any of the alleged parties held. I deeply sympathise with those who watched their loved ones suffer alone during this period and followed the strict regulations set out by this government.

"The Prime Minister today has apologised in the Commons. A senior Civil Servant is investigating this situation thoroughly and I hope her report is published in the coming days. I will decide what to do when we have all seen that report. I also hope that everyone in government reflects on the need for public confidence in the good faith of those who are making the rules."

Dover MP Natalie Elphicke added: “The Prime Minister has rightly acknowledged the hardship so many faced during this time, explained his attendance and apologised for it. This was the right thing to do.

“I await the outcome of Sue Gray’s investigation. But let me be absolutely clear - if there was a party against Covid rules, there absolutely should not have been.”

On BBC News today, Craig Mackinlay, who also failed to provide KentOnline with a comment yesterday, said: "I don't think it's unreasonable for him to give us a clear answer about whether he was at the party.

"I don't think we are into the realms of resignation yet. I was a magistrate for ten years, I look at the evidence and wait until the case is proven.

"There are other things we need to be talking about, there's a big world out there."

Rochester and Strood's Kelly Tolhurst said she could not respond to a request for comment ahead of PMQs as she was in a bill committee.

She said: “I am pleased the Prime Minister has today apologised for the activities that went on at No10 Downing Street during the first lockdown in May 2020. The rules were put in place to protect the country and the people from this deadly virus. Whether you are an elected politician or someone who works within Government in Whitehall, the rules should apply to everyone equally.

"As someone who held a ministerial post during the first lockdown, I find it quite unbelievable that these activities took place, and I like everyone am upset by what has been reported. I was abiding by lockdown restrictions unable to see my family and friends in person like everyone else.”

Canterbury and Whitstable MP Rosie Duffield - Kent's only Labour parliamentarian - described the Prime Minister's actions as "deeply offensive" as she called for his resignation.

Speaking to KentOnline this afternoon, Ms Duffield said: "The Prime Minister did at least apologise today but many people feel really angry and betrayed that while they were missing important family celebrations, unable to even visit ill or dying family members, the Prime Minister and his team were drinking together and enjoying the sunshine of the Downing Street garden.

"It is deeply offensive and shows no respect to ordinary British people and those working to save lives, that he took so long to apologise and then denied knowing it was a party.

"I think Keir Starmer and the growing number of Conservative MPs who are calling for him to resign are right and he must now realise this is the correct thing to do."

Yesterday, former attorney general Dominic Grieve said Johnson was a "serial liar" and must resign while deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner asked an urgent question.

But Johnson was not there and nor were any of the cabinet, with the job of defending the Prime Minister this time falling to Paymaster General Michael Ellis.

During fierce questioning, which also saw one MP break down in tears while recalling the death of his mother-in-law who died alone during lockdown, Mr Ellis said he had full faith in the PM's integrity and repeatedly referred to Ms Gray's inquiry.

When asked about whether Johnson would resign if found to have attended the party he said: "The Prime Minister's going nowhere."

The Met Police have been in contact with officials following the latest revelations.

As a result, Ms Gray’s investigation could be paused if evidence emerges of a criminal offence and the Metropolitan Police decide to launch an inquiry.

Johnson has said party organiser Mr Reynolds has "his full confidence".

Speaking before PMQs Huw Merriman, chairman of the Commons Transport Committee, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “more clarity is needed because we’re back where we were a month ago before the inquiry was set up where people are demanding answers”.

“We’re all in the dark – and that includes me,” he said.

But he suggested the Prime Minister would not necessarily need to resign over the issue, because “as far as I’m concerned, we judge people in the round”, looking at the whole of his record.

Backbencher Nigel Mills warned that any senior figure who willingly attended the event could not have a position where they were responsible for setting Covid-19 policy.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson with his principal private secretary Martin Reynolds in 2016 (Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson with his principal private secretary Martin Reynolds in 2016 (Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA)

“It is utterly untenable, we have seen people resign for far less than that. If the Prime Minister knowingly attended a party, I can’t see how he can survive,” he told the BBC.

“I don’t think we need an inquiry to work out whether the Prime Minister was there. He knows whether he was there or not. Just come out and say what happened.

“If he was there he better try a hugely fulsome apology and see if the country will buy it but I’m not sure they will.”

His comments echoed the leader of the Scottish Tories, Douglas Ross, who called for the Prime Minister to come clean about whether he attended the event and again warned that Johnson could not carry on in No 10 if he was found to have misled Parliament.

Backbencher Neil Hudson said he was “appalled and shocked” by the reports, adding “if rules have been broken then quite rightly there should be serious consequences”.

Senior Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood said Johnson should “show some contrition”.

The Commons Defence Committee chairman told Sky News: “I strongly urge the Prime Minister to act now, to apologise for No 10’s poor judgment, to show some contrition and to be committed to appropriately respond to Sue Gray’s findings when they come out.

“We can’t allow things to drift, that is not an option.”

No ministers were on the airwaves this morning or yesterday to answer questions about the partygate row in a sign of the nervousness in Downing Street about the situation.

In an indication of the Opposition’s line of attack, deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner had earlier told Today: “People have been reflecting about what was happening to them at the time in May and many people are still grieving their loved ones who they weren’t able to say goodbye to at the time, and to think the Prime Minister was laughing and partying is just unforgivable.”

Ms Rayner, asked whether she thought the garden of No 10 constituted a workplace – meaning the Prime Minister and his staff might have a defence for being there – added: “Many key workers are NHS staff who were working very heavy shifts, 12-hour shifts with full PPE on – they didn’t break out into the garden with cheese and wine and ‘bring your own booze’ scenarios.

“They were working incredibly hard, watching people’s loved ones die, holding smartphones and iPads in front of them so they could say goodbye to their loved ones – it is not acceptable to say: ‘This is a workplace garden, so we all cracked open the bubbly because it was a really nice day’.

“Many people at the time understood the rules, and the rules were very clear.”

With the public mood turning increasingly angry, two snap polls found a majority now believed Johnson should stand down as Prime Minister.

A Savanta ComRes study found 66% of British adults thought he should quit, with 24% saying he should stay, while a YouGov survey for Sky News found 56% believed he should go, with 27% saying he should remain.

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