Explained: What is the ‘Christmas party scandal’ the UK government is embroiled in?

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UK’s senior-most civil servant, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, will no longer investigate the Downing Street lockdown Christmas parties, dubbed the “Christmas Party scandal” or the “partygate” probe.

Case has stepped down because two rule-breaking parties were allegedly held at his own office.

The investigations, ordered by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, will now be carried out by Sue Gray, who is the second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Tory MP Richard Holden recently described Gray as ‘formidable’ and ‘not a pushover’. She was also described as the “most powerful person you have never met” on BBC Newsnight.

While Case was supposed to share the findings from his probe on December 17, with his resignation as investigator, this has been delayed.

What was Case supposed to investigate?

The investigation is supposed to find out if three Christmas parties – that took place on Downing Street on November 27, December 15 and December 18 and one at the education department that took place on December 10 in 2020 – broke Covid-19 protocols in place at the time. London was then under Tier 3 restrictions, which meant that parties and social events were banned.

Under Tier 3 restrictions, or “Very High Alert”, no mixing of households indoors was allowed. A maximum number of six people could meet in some outdoor public spaces such as parks and public gardens. Restaurants etc. were allowed to operate only as takeaways or carry out business through drive-through facilities.

Further, only 15 guests were allowed for weddings, civil partnerships and wakes and 30 people for funerals. Wedding receptions were not permitted.

The ‘partygate’ probe, what’s going on?

It all started when a video showing Johnson’s senior aides joking about breaking lockdown rules to attend a Christmas party was leaked online. The leaked video led to criticism from the public and the Opposition over the Conservative government flouting Covid-19 protocols, especially when due to the restrictions, many people had been unable to celebrate Christmas.

The video leaked to iTV news shows senior staff from Downing Street in a mock press briefing on December 22, 2020, for Downing Street’s proposed daily TV media briefings.

In this clip, Ed Oldfield, who is Johnson’s Special Adviser, asks Allegra Stratton (Johnson’s former Spokeswoman, she resigned soon after the video surfaced) about reports on Twitter concerning a Christmas party on Downing Street. Stratton laughs and replies that she went home.

Oldfield then asks Stratton if the Prime Minister would have condoned such a party, to which Stratton says, “Is cheese and wine alright? It was a business meeting…”

She subsequently adds jokingly, “This is recorded. This fictional party was a business meeting…and it was not socially distanced”. A source who was aware of this party at Downing Street told iTV news, “We all know someone who died from Covid and after seeing this all in the papers I couldn’t not say anything. I’m so angry about it all, the way it is being denied.”

The iTV report also says that the police were actively looking for rule-breakers at the time. In fact, London’s Metropolitan Police intervened when they found out about a wedding being attended by about 40 people. This wedding took place on December 17, just a day before the alleged Downing Street party.

The Metropolitan Police tweeted about the wedding, “Officers have shut down a wedding where 40 people were in attendance. Holding large gatherings could be the difference between life and death for someone else. #London is in Tier 3. You must not mix inside with anyone, who is not in your household or support bubble.”

The police has said that it will not investigate the Downing Street allegations since it is their policy to not look into retrospective breaches of Covid-19 protocols.

What has been Johnson’s position on the probe?

Johnson has repeatedly denied that any rules were broken in Downing Street. Additionally, the Mirror reported that Johnson himself hosted a quiz at 10 Downing Street last Christmas “in apparent breach of lockdown rules.”

An analysis by Nick Eardley for the BBC said that “It is deeply embarrassing for the government — and for the cabinet secretary — that he is now seen to have a conflict of interest in this inquiry.”

“The big picture is that Boris Johnson has faced a torrid few weeks which have left his party jittery. The list is long; the handling of sleaze allegations, the record Tory rebellion in the Commons, the loss of an incredibly safe seat, the continued fallout from allegations of Christmas parties in Whitehall,” Eardley notes.

The rebellion refers to the hesitancy expressed by about 30 Tory MPs who are not in favour of Johnson’s ‘Plan-B restrictions’ for England amid the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus in the country.

The loss of the seat refers to the by-election results for the North Shropshire seat that the Tories had held for nearly 200 years. After the results of the by-elections, Johnson said that he accepted responsibility for the results, but also pointed out that one of the biggest issues of the past few weeks was that “what people have been hearing is a litany of stuff about politics and politicians and stuff that isn’t about them and things we can do to make life better”.

The situation was made more precarious for Johnson on Tuesday, when the Daily Mirror published an image that shows 24 people crowded together in a room in the Tories’ Westminster headquarters for an event that was organised by the party’s London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey’s campaign. After the photograph was published, Bailey quit as the chair of the London Assembly’s police and crime committee.

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The Daily Mirror says that this photograph was taken on December 14, 2020, when London was under Tier 2 restrictions, under which meeting people indoors from households other than their own was prohibited. The report also said that hours after this party, then health secretary Matt Hancock announced Tier 3 restrictions for London.

Hancock resigned from his position in June after admitting that he had violated social distancing protocols. His resignation came after photos published by The Sun showed him in an embrace with his colleague Gina Coladangelo.





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