Partygate is back on the political agenda, with Boris Johnson targeting the police over fresh allegations that he broke lockdown rules at Checkers gatherings during the Covid pandemic.
What is the Partygate scandal?
This turned out to be one of the major events that led to Johnson’s fall from No 10, and saw his popularity with Tory MPs and the public slide until he stepped down as prime minister and left office in September 2022.
Reports of illegal gatherings in defiance of strict Covid laws first emerged in December 2020.
At first, the prime minister denied any rules had been broken, but evidence began to mount, including photos of some of the events, and a leaked mock press conference in which Downing Street staff joked about a recent Christmas party.
As the flow of revelations brought Johnson’s commitments into question, he was forced to announce an inquiry – initially held by the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, but later chaired by a senior civil servant, Sue Gray.
At the same time, an investigation was opened by Scotland Yard, and 126 people were issued with fixed-penalty notices, including Johnson, his wife and the chancellor at the time, Rishi Sunak.
Gray’s long-awaited report looked at 16 gatherings, from May 2020 to April 2021, that took place when tough rules on meeting other people were in place.
What happened next?
Johnson tried to fight back as prime minister, but other scandals engulfed his presidency, and he was effectively forced out by cabinet ministers who resigned in droves.
Once the civil service and police inquiries were over, attention turned to whether Johnson had mocked parliament – a cardinal sin for any MP, let alone a prime minister.
The seven MPs on the privileges committee began their investigation last summer, sifting through evidence including WhatsApp messages and door knocks to establish what Johnson knew about the parties. .
Although the government initially withheld much of the information, it was forced to hand it over, and Johnson appeared before the committee in March of this year. Swearing on the King James Bible, Johnson said “hand on heart” he had not lied to the Commons, but acknowledged the guidance on social distancing: “I will not pretend that it is strictly enforced.”
What defense does Johnson offer?
Throughout the pandemic, key workers have been allowed into the office. Johnson said the events during the lockdown he attended were “significant”, including one in which he was pictured raising a glass in a departure.
Pointing to evidence collected from No 10 officials, Johnson argued it “conclusively” showed he did not deliberately mislead parliament, as he had been “repeatedly” assured by No 10 aides that he had not’ y rules that are broken.
The case denies giving Johnson any assurances that Covid rules and guidelines are being followed at all times at No 10. He said he was not aware of anyone there giving assurances, either.
What happens next?
Johnson is still a sitting Conservative MP. If he is found to have misled parliament, the amount of danger he faces depends on the nature of the penalty imposed. A suspension of 10 days or more could result in him facing a byelection.
Rishi Sunak’s government continued to pay Johnson’s legal fees with taxpayers’ money – a controversial move. And the No 10 will be cautiously seen to trouble against Johnson, given his displeasure at the dismissal.
But having a police investigation continue to pressure the Conservatives over the scandalous allegations is likely to anger Sunak, and he will have to decide how much to keep his predecessor.