Downing Street insiders have described chaotic mid-lockdown parties in No 10 they felt were condoned by Boris Johnson – as he ‘was grabbing a glass for himself’. Three anonymous individuals have told BBC Panorama in detail what they witnessed at regular rule-breaking events during coronavirus restrictions.
Amid claims of ‘wine time Fridays’, one said: “There were bottles, empties, rubbish – in the bin, but overflowing – or indeed sometimes left on the table.” Their evidence will heap further pressure on the Prime Minister ahead of the publication of the Sue Gray inquiry into “partygate”, which No 10 expects on Wednesday.
Party debris was left overnight for people arriving at work the next day to discover after staff crowded together and sat on each other’s laps at parties, according to the attendees.
One said they felt they had the permission of the Prime Minister as he was not telling them to break up the scenes when returning to his flat. “No, I wasn’t telling anybody that. He was grabbing a glass for himself,” they said.
Mr Johnson was already under renewed pressure after images obtained by ITV News showed him raising a glass while surrounded by colleagues and bottles of wine. Days after ordering England’s second national lockdown, the pictures showed the Prime Minister giving a toast for departing communications chief Lee Cain on November 13 2020.
One witness described the party that night: “There were about 30 people, if not more, in a room. Everyone was standing shoulder to shoulder, some people on each other’s laps… one or two people. Unforgivable ”scenes were described at the party on April 16 last year, which was the eve of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral for him.
They described a “lively event… a general party with people dancing around” that became so loud that security guards told them to go into the No 10 grounds. “So everyone grabbed all the drinks, the food, everything, and went into the garden,” one source said. “We all sat around the tables drinking. People stayed the night there.”
The insiders said the events were “every week”, with invitations for press office drinks listed in the diary as “Wine-Time Friday”. One former official described often turning up at No 10 to find it “a mess”. “There were bottles, empties, rubbish – in the bin, but overflowing – or indeed sometimes left on the table,” they said.
One said a Downing Street security guard, known as a custodian, was mocked when he tried to break up a party. “I remember when a custodian tried to stop it all and he was just shaking his head in this party, being like ‘This shouldn’t be happening’,” they said.
Deputy Labor leader Angela Rayner questioned “who will defend this rotten culture” as she suggested the BBC report portrays “Downing Street as a parallel universe”. Downing Street, asked about the insiders’ claims, said there was a limit to what it could say before the investigation by Ms Gray has been submitted.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “I’ve certainly seen the report. “You will appreciate, as I made clear this morning, that I can’t get into commenting on claims put forward given Sue Gray’s report has not been published yet.
“You will hear from the Prime Minister once that has happened, so I am limited in what I can say.” Meanwhile, No 10 was forced to deny that Mr Johnson urged Ms Gray to drop plans to publish her report from her in a private meeting earlier this month.
The Times reported that the Prime Minister suggested to the senior civil servant that there was no longer any point in releasing her findings as the facts were “all out there”. Mr Johnson’s official spokesman said he did not recognize “that characterization” of the meeting and insisted the Prime Minister wants the report to be published.
“This was a legitimate meeting about the process (of publication) rather than the contents of the report,” the spokesman said. “The Prime Minister did not ask her to drop the report or not proceed with the report. It was the Prime Minister who commissioned the report. He wants the report to be published.”
Earlier, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps insisted that Mr Johnson did not believe he was at a lockdown-breaking party in the images showing him raising a glass and surrounded by colleagues and wine bottles. Mr Shapps said he was “angry” to see the photographs but suggested the Prime Minister may not have been fined over the event because he left the leaving do “pretty quick”.
Scotland Yard was also facing calls to explain why Mr Johnson was not fined over that event when photos showed him, drink in hand, by a table strewn with food and wine bottles.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan was among those calling for the Met to explain why Mr Johnson only received a single fine for breaching lockdown rules with his 56th birthday gathering. The Labor politician told BBC Radio 4’s Today program “the police should explain why they reached their conclusions and provide that clarity” in order to command public confidence.
Facing renewed pressure from Conservatives, Mr Johnson is scheduled to address the 1922 Committee of backbench Tories on Wednesday. He is expected to address the Commons and a Downing Street press conference after the Gray report is published.
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross demanded the Prime Minister explain why he believed his behavior was “acceptable” when most people would think the pictures showed “unjustifiable and wrong” behaviour. Conservative MP David Simmonds said he was awaiting Ms Gray’s report but that it will be “very difficult” for Mr Johnson to explain how he did not mislead Parliament.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.