Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, might have been hoping that—with the advent of Dry January and with memories of an officially uncancelled Christmas still fresh in people’s minds—the public would have lost interest in whether Downing Street, during the dreary, death-filled lockdowns of the first year of COVID, was quietly serving as an unlikely speakeasy and hostelry for the highly placed. That hope lasted about as long as any New Year’s resolution Johnson might have made to brush his hair more frequently. On Monday, just one workweek into the New Year, ITV News reported on the emergence of an e-mail—dated May 20, 2020, and sent by Johnson’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds—cheerily inviting a hundred government staffers to a B.Y.O.B. gathering in the garden of No. 10 to “make the most of the lovely weather.” Reportedly, a long table was being set up in the Downing Street garden more or less simultaneously with a press conference being conducted inside, at which Oliver Dowden, then Secretary of State for Digital, Media, Culture, and Sport, informed the public that “you can meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor, public place, provided that you stay two metres apart.” Eyewitnesses have alleged that among those who turned up for the fun on that balmy, blue-skied evening—by which date more than thirty-five thousand people in Britain had died of COVID, with three hundred and sixty-three daily deaths announced by Dowden in his remarks—were the Prime Minister and his wife, Carrie Johnson.
So many parties! An onlooker who has been deprived for much of the past two years of anything resembling normal social contact might survey the evidence of Downing Street jollies amassed in recent weeks and experience not just the onset of belated FOMO—the fear of missing out—but a parallel emotion, that of anger at the mofos blithely ignoring the very rules they were imposing. In the lead-up to Christmas, reports of past social antics at Downing Street emerged with the regularity, and almost the frequency, of windows opening on an Advent calendar. In December of 2020, when London was enduring what were called Tier Three restrictions—a work-from-home rule was in place, it was forbidden to socialize either indoors or in a private garden, and pubs and restaurants were closed—the cramped corridors and offices of No. 10 had, apparently, rung with the hilarity of a Christmas-quiz event one day, followed in the same week by a party with, reportedly, dozens of staffers in attendance, some trading Secret Santa gifts and wearing Christmas-themed sweaters. A few days later—by which time London and other parts of England had entered the even more restrictive Tier Four, with the closure of nonessential retail and a prohibition on travel to other parts of the country—there were more yukks during a practice question-and-answer session in Downing Street’s costly new media room, where Allegra Stratton, then the Prime Minister’s spokesperson, was jokingly asked to address rumors of a party having been held under Johnson’s roof. “I went home,” Stratton said coyly. “Is cheese and wine all right? It was a business meeting.” (Stratton, who was spared the rigor of being quizzed on TV by the real press when she was reassigned to a different position in government, resigned not long after a video of the Q. & A. practice session emerged.) After the Stratton video was made public in early December, the Prime Minister appeared in the House of Commons with a brazen strategy for deflecting blame: he understood people’s fury, he said, because he, too, was “furious to see that clip.” That assertion was one which even Johnson’s most skeptical detractors could credit; having seen how bullishly angry Johnson can get in public when being needled on a weekly basis by Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, one can only imagine his flushed, sputtering, button-popping rage at the exposure.
It soon became clear, however, that the alleged partying was not merely a festive-season lapse on the part of staffers, of whose shenanigans the Prime Minister—sequestered in his upper-story flat—was unaware. There were shenanigans all the way down. A few days after the video was leaked, the Guardian published a photo dating from May 15, 2020—during the U.K.’s first lockdown—of a wine-and-cheese gathering in the garden of Downing Street, with the unmistakable figures of Boris and Carrie Johnson settled into a couple of rattan chairs, a nice glass of red on a table in front of the Prime Minister. The garden of Downing Street enjoys considerable privacy, at least when none of those individuals who work at No. 10 are taking long-range—and, given the cutthroat nature of politics, possibly long-game—photographs from upper floors. Planted with mature trees and backing onto the parade ground of the Royal Horse Guards, it is bordered only by government offices, and, with the public prevented by barriers from approaching even the front of the Prime Minister’s house, those who have a pass for entry might well come to think of themselves as insulated from public scrutiny. The closest most Britons have come to seeing the garden for themselves was in the spring of 2020, when it was the site not of a party—for a change—but of a press conference held by Dominic Cummings, then the Prime Minister’s most senior aide. Speaking to socially distanced reporters and decidedly not enjoying the lovely weather, Cummings justified his decision to drive with his family from London to a house in County Durham early in the pandemic, in apparent contravention of quarantine restrictions. That non-mea culpa took place on May 25th, five days after the gathering for which Reynolds issued his e-mail.
When Johnson was confronted on Monday by a reporter for the BBC with the leak of the party-invitation e-mail, he declined to give comment. “All that, is subject for an investigation by Sue Gray,” he said twice, with a smirk. Gray is the senior civil servant who, in mid-December, inherited the task of investigating the exhausting social calendar at Downing Street from Simon Case, the even more senior civil servant who was obliged to recuse himself from the inquiry after it emerged that, the night before the now notorious Christmas party, he allegedly hosted colleagues for drinks and snacks in his own office. The same “Sue Gray” mantra was repeated by the health minister Edward Argar, who on Tuesday morning was given the unenviable task of defending the government on news shows. “I can understand the anger, but I can also understand the hurt and the upset,” Argar said on the BBC’s flagship radio news program, “Today.”
Argar maintained that, not having been invited to the party in question, he was not going to speculate on events of which he had no firsthand knowledge. But he insisted that the Prime Minister “did the right thing” by appointing Gray to do her work. On Twitter, the suggestion that the Prime Minister’s rectitude in launching an investigation had rendered unseemly any questions about the actual events under investigation was met with scathing incredulity. “ ‘I will need to wait until a third-party investigator can ascertain whether I attended a party at my house thrown by my private secretary’ is really quite a move,” the historian Sarah Churchwell remarked. One hopes that Sue Gray’s inquiries will extend to questioning the gardener responsible for maintaining the lawn—it was apparently taking quite a beating back in May, 2020—and perhaps to the person whose job it is to throw out Downing Street’s empties. If only the recycling bins could talk. Meanwhile, post-party revelations, and their fallout, seem unlikely immediately to dry up. The Metropolitan Police, having declined to investigate the Christmas parties uncovered last year, have confirmed that they are in discussions with the Cabinet Office about Monday’s revelations. For Johnson, it’s going to be an even longer January than usual.