Illegal lockdown Christmas party: is this Johnson’s “Barnard Castle” moment?

Meme by Sadie Parker

This government has a history of bad timing. During Anti-Bullying Week in 2020, news broke that prime minister Boris Johnson had decided to ignore that his home secretary Priti Patel had been found to bully her staff, and not to sack her. Then during Parliament Week in November 2021 he tried to undermine the very same institution. He overthrew its disciplinary procedures, such as they are, in order to spare corrupt Tory MP Owen Paterson from sanction and make it even easier for Tory MPs to carry on morally dubious practices.

Now here we are at the end of Grief Awareness Week and guess what? Our libertarian prime minister has disrespected that in the most offensive of ways. It was revealed during the course of the Week that he had held a party attended by 40-50 people at 10 Downing Street on 18 December 2020, two days after telling the nation we had to stick to our covid bubbles for Christmas and to start restricting who we saw from 18 December onwards – ie, on the very day of the PM’s party. It was a day when 489 covid deaths were announced.

Furthermore, the objectionable party was just one of several parties held at Downing Street, while the rest of us were in lockdown, cut off from our loved ones at Christmas.

While acknowledging that the party took place at Prime Minister’s Questions on December 1, Johnson has refused to apologise.

To put this in context, London went into ‘tier 3’ of covid restrictions on 16 December 2020. The Government’s guidance at the time specifically stated:

“Although there are exemptions for work purposes, you must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted by the rules in your tier.”

As to legality: for tier 3 areas the law banned gatherings of two or more people indoors unless it was “reasonably necessary” for work purposes. For those Tory MPs who struggle with counting (see Tory maths on police officers, nurses and hospitals), 40-50 people is definitely more than two, and even the greatest of government spin-doctors would be hard pressed to convince us that a knees-up is “reasonably necessary” for work.

On 17 December 2020 the Met tweeted a video of them shutting down a wedding where 40 people were in attendance. “London is in tier 3”, they said. “You must not mix with anyone who is not in your household or support bubble.”

Also that day, a couple of miles away from Downing Street, the Met had broken up a house party, telling the party-goers that they were facing fines of up to £10,000 for breaking the rules. Elsewhere, students were indeed fined: £200 each – a small fortune to somebody not on a ministerial salary – for sitting together in their hallway, chatting.

Due to a backlog in cases, magistrates are still handling cases of covid lockdown breaches and giving out fines – even now:

On 15 September 2020 Priti Patel had told Sky News that she would grass on her neighbours if they broke covid rules, and she encouraged everyone to do the same.

“If I saw something that I thought was inappropriate, then quite frankly I would effectively call the police.”

“It’s not about dobbing in neighbours, I think it’s all about us taking personal responsibility. If there was a big party taking place, it would be right to call the police.” 

On 17 December, she publicly castigated Bournemouth East MP Tobias Ellwood for breaching the rules by appearing as an after-dinner speaker at a business event for 27 people held the day before London entered tier 3. She even suggested a fine might be appropriate. Once again, she urged people to call the police on their neighbours if they broke the Christmas covid rules. It appears Rishi Sunak did not heed her advice.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick reluctant to investigate

Now that the breaches of both the rules and the law are known, can we expect to see Boris Johnson and other Downing Street insiders fined? The short answer, in an extraordinary demonstration of “one rule for the plebs, no rules for MPs”, is no. Cressida Dick first claimed not to have received any complaints. No complaint, no investigation. Two Labour MPs, Neil Coyle and Barry Gardiner, then took it upon themselves to write a formal complaint and request an investigation. Over 4,000 health-workers followed suit, as have untold numbers of the public.

Sadly, Cressida Dick has a poor track record when it comes to investigating wrong-doing by Tory MPs. She recently refused to investigate the “cash-for-peerages” scandal that has engulfed the Conservative Party, for example. Nor has she investigated the same party offering Nigel Farage a peerage in return for his cooperation in the 2019 General Election, despite those allegations being in the public domain and evidenced by Farage himself, who has boasted about the offer on national TV.

How will the Commissioner get out of investigating this incident? She has already dropped a hint. The Met has a policy “not to routinely investigate retrospective breaches of covid-19 regulations,” she said.

This is an astounding assertion. Unless she has come up with some way of anticipating crime and only investigates crimes that will occur in the future, as in the science-fiction short story Minority Report by her namesake Philip K. Dick, this would mean that no breaches were ever investigated, because unless police catch people in the act, all breaches are in the past and thus “retrospective”.

What sort of precedent would that set? Does that mean crimes committed a day, a week, a month, a year, a decade, a random period of time ago of the criminal’s choosing, should not be investigated because they are in the past? That’s certainly the line Dominic Raab tried to take… It’s a nonsense, as the law does not set a time limit for issuing a fixed penalty notice (fine) for breach of the coronavirus regulations, but then much of what the recently demoted Mr Raab says and does is just that.

What are MPs saying?

None other than Boris Johnson himself proclaimed, on 10 November 2021: “MPs who break the law must be investigated and punished.” Will he be condemned by his own words? This is Johnson’s Barnard Castle moment. Unlike the time when Dominic Cummings was caught in breach of the Covid-19 regulations, and dozens of Tory MPs the length and breadth of the country rushed to his defence, few are putting their heads above the parapet to defend the “crime minister”.

Not one of our local MPs has tweeted in support of him on this matter. Have they learned their lesson? Given Jacob Rees-Mogg’s speech to the Commons on the importance of equality before the law, just days before the story of the illegal Downing Street Christmas party broke, it would be nice to be able to think so:

However, the responses from MPs like Simon Jupp, to constituents who have written in to demand an explanation, are not so encouraging. Mr Jupp specifically uses the excuse that anyone who works at Downing Street is a “key worker”. However, there is no exemption in the law for key workers from the “no work lunches or Christmas parties” rule, so either Mr Jupp is misinformed or he’s giving out misleading information (also known as lies) to his constituents.

I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies. At least Mr Jupp is answering. Rob Moore – the MP who had the Tory whip suspended after being found guilty of sexual misconduct (and who really should have resigned as an MP) – systematically blocks constituents on social media who ask him about the incident.

The other line Tory MPs are taking is that they have been “assured all guidance was followed”. If you’re holding a party when the law states you must not hold a party, then self-evidently all guidance is not being followed. This is such a ridiculous defence, it is no wonder that health minister Maggie Throup tied herself in knots with it on a recent episode of BBC’s Question Time:

Some of the more hypocritical Tory MPs, like Michael Fabricant and Lucy Allan, have accused MPs complaining about Johnson’s lawless behaviour of “playing politics.” Taking Ms Allan as an example, she fabricated a death threat, tweeted defamatory, doctored videos by a far-right group, and heavily condemned SNP MP Margaret Farrier’s “reckless lawbreaking” when she travelled on a train after testing positive for covid; so she is not the most credible of critics.

So far, 12,100 members of the public have put Ms Allan straight, compared with only 2,000 ‘liking’ what she says. In Twitter parlance, that’s called “being ratio’d”. No doubt she’ll mis-label it as a pile-on, but if, as an MP, you’re going to condone law-breaking, especially when the law in question has had a life-altering impact on millions of people, then you can only expect a strong reaction. As “Secret Barrister” advised her, it is still a crime when your colleagues break the law.

Why does it matter if the PM broke his own lockdown regulations?

Oliver Dowden, the Conservative Party chair, has been doing that most Tory of things: telling the public what they think (again). It’s his view that none of this matters to the public. After the reaction to free school meals for children in the holidays, the raw sewage crisis, and Johnson trying to overthrow the House of Commons standards procedures, Tory MPs should have sworn off trying to shape public opinion by telling us what we should and should not care about. But here we are. Oliver Dowden is, of course, wrong.

The public cares a great deal about the prime minister holding illegal parties at Downing Street while the rest of us were banned from seeing our loved ones over Christmas – for some, their very last Christmas – not merely because it is hypocritical, which it is, but mostly because it is hurtful.

Tory MPs are showing themselves to be callous and out of touch with the public on this, as on so many other issues. Tweets like these filled my timeline:

A woman who lost her beloved aunt, but was not allowed to attend her funeral:

/-A heart-rending call into a radio programme:

Say goodbye to your mum, socially distanced in the car-park, at your dad’s funeral:

People also died of other causes besides Covid-19 during this period, but their relatives faced the same restrictions. I defy anyone to read the answers to this tweet by Dr Pam Jarvis about her brother, who died of cancer on 18 December, and not to weep:

Let’s not forget also that health-care staff were impacted too:

So yeah, the one-rule-ism of Boris Johnson sticks in everyone’s craw.

But it’s so much more than that, and in Grief Awareness Week, Tory MPs ought – at the very least – to have made an effort to be sensitive to the enduring pain of bereavement, and the hurt the prime minister has caused by his actions.

Meme and photo by Sadie Parker