Wine, gin, sausage rolls and an invite to “bring your own booze”. This was the scene at 10 Downing Street amid the strict lockdown of May 20, 2020. Boris Johnson spent 25 minutes at the party. He says he didn’t realise it was one.
Some 140 miles away in Newport, Nicola Mincher was grieving the loss of her husband Raza. Just a few weeks before the party, Raza had died after a month in intensive care fighting Covid, his organs slowly failing. The 53-year-old dad-of-two was treated side by side with his brother Ghulam, who died hours later of the same deadly virus.
Nicola was only able to visit her husband once in hospital. Raza was unconscious as she held his hand. He died minutes after she arrived. It still haunts Nicola every day that she spent so little of his final weeks with him, but she respected lockdown. She had seen what Covid could do.
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Nicola was far from alone. Dean Burnett’s abiding memory of spring 2020 is saying goodbye to his dying father on a phone call; for Dr Saleyha Ahsan it’s trying not to pass out in full PPE while saving lives; for nurse Leanne Lewis it’s seeing her colleagues die; while for Carol Richards it’s being fined for waving at her mum through a care home window.
The Prime Minister has made a mockery of all those people and countless others. During a pandemic which has killed 174,233 across the UK including 9,176 in Wales, his government has been accused of 14 rule-breaking parties. Johnson reportedly told Scotland’s Tory leader this week that he couldn’t guarantee there isn’t more to come out. And with each new report, Nicola feels more “disgusted”. She cannot bring herself to say the Prime Minister’s name or look at her television when he appears.
Dean, a neuroscientist and author whose 58-year-old Port Talbot dad died in April 2020, says he’s been so angry he became numb. “You are so angry that it pushes you beyond. It’s like stretching an elastic band so far that it goes too floppy,” he said.
It’s a scandal that threatens not just to bring down a Prime Minister but damage the Conservative Party for years. Professor Paul Whiteley, of the University Essex, this week compared it to the Profumo affair that brought down the Tory government of 1963. Savanta ComRes polling shows two thirds think Johnson should stand down. The latest YouGov poll gives Labour a 10-point lead. In the New Statesman, Ben Walker argued that the level of anger in marginal seats would turn that Labour lead into a landslide.
The Government has admitted some of the gatherings and denied others. Johnson has attended some and claimed ignorance of others. He has used words such as “work meeting” to defend an event which featured wine, cheese and his wife Carrie. He has apologised for one party while insisting he thought he was actually at a “work event”. His spokeswoman Allegra Stratton lost her job for joking about one of the parties, but he believes he can continue as PM after attending one.
For Johnson personally, it threatens to be one disaster too far. His ability to turn catastrophes into votes with a goofy smile and a wacky pair of shorts has defied convention throughout his career. Who else has become Prime Minister after secretly discussing a plan to beat up a journalist? Or describing working-class men as “likely to be drunk, criminal, aimless, feckless and hopeless”?
Now though his smirk has become the sign he’s lying. Radio presenter James O’Brien of LBC described it as “the little Benny Hill type twitching of the upper lip”like the one he gave when asked if he’d attended a party in lockdown in his own back garden. Johnson’s own Tory MPs use phrases like “a matter of time” and “managed exit”. But if he loses the ability to make people laugh because all they see is a man who made fools of them, it won’t just be his job as Prime Minister he has to worry about but what options he has afterwards as well.
But right now this is about more than just one man. A police officer told LBC radio on Friday that he felt like “an idiot” for having stopped crying family members for attending cremations when there were too many people.
“I feel like an idiot… I could have been more lenient. If we’re all standing here trying to follow the rules and he can’t even follow the rules he’s put out himself,” he said.
If this shatters not just the public’s faith in the government but the willingness of police officers to enforce rules, how deep and long-lasting will the damage prove? In total, there were 11,884 fines for breaches of lockdown rules issued in Wales and 105,329 in England. Some 366 of them – including three in Wales – related to gatherings of more than 30 people. A further 3,440 in England and 501 in Wales were for groups of more than 15.
The Metropolitan Police appears, so far, unlikely to apply the same rigour to determining whether there were similar breaches in the heart of government. We’re told the Met will only investigate if senior civil servant Sue Gray’s inquiry finds evidence of criminality. We’re also told by the Times that she has not found sufficient evidence of criminality to refer the incidents to the police.
As ITV’s Paul Brand put it: “The many thousands of people fined for breaching Covid rules may wish they could only have asked a close colleague to investigate them before needing to involve the police.”
Few will forgive or forget partygate. Let’s look at why, starting with a timeline of the reported events:
All the gatherings reported in ‘partygate’
- May 15, 2020: Downing Street garden party
Boris Johnson, his wife Carrie, then-chief adviser Dominic Cummings and principal private secretary Martin Reynolds were all pictured in a photograph leaked to The Guardian, sitting at a table in the No 10 garden, with wine and cheese in front of them.
Another 15 people were in the photograph but the Prime Minister insisted this was a work meeting, saying: “Those were meetings of people at work, talking about work.”
Rules at the time said people could not leave their homes without a reasonable excuse, which included work where people couldn’t work from home.
- May 20 2020: BYOB garden party
An email leaked to ITV showed Mr Reynolds invited more than 100 Downing Street employees to “bring your own booze” for an evening gathering in the garden of No 10. Around 40 reportedly showed up, with a spread of booze and food.
The Prime Minister has admitted attending the event for 25 minutes but he said he thought it was a “work event”. At the time the rules still barred people from leaving their homes without a reasonable excuse.
- November 13 2020: Johnsons’ flat party and a leaving party for senior aide
Mr Cummings has alleged the Prime Minister and wife Carrie held a party on November 13 at their flat in Downing Street. He claimed the party was to celebrate him leaving his role and that Carrie did not like him. She has dismissed this as “total nonsense”.
Also on November 13, Mr Johnson reportedly gave an impromptu speech to staff at the leaving do of former director of communications Lee Cain. Staff are reported to have had drinks at their desks but it has been denied there was a formal leaving do, according to the i.
Both of the events would have occurred during the second national lockdown in England, which came into force on November 5 and banned social gatherings.
- November 25 2020: Treasury drinks
Treasury staff working on the Autumn Spending Review indulged in a soiree at the office on November 25, according to The Times, which reported around two dozen civil servants were present for the drinks.
During the second lockdown, people were being urged to stay at home except for limited reasons, including work if it could not be done from home.
They said: “We have been made aware that a small number of those staff had impromptu drinks around their desks after the event.”
- November 27 2020: A second staff leaving do
Mr Johnson reportedly gave a speech at a “packed” leaving party on November 27 for senior aide Cleo Watson, with staff enjoying a few drinks together, the Daily Mail has reported.
The Mail reported that “40 or 50 people” were present for the departure of Ms Watson, a protégé of Mr Cummings.
The Prime Minister said “according to extremely well-respected civil servants and special advisors” no rules were broken. Again, the second national lockdown was in place at the time.
- December 10 2020: Department for Education party
Then-Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and staff at the Department for Education gathered during the evening of December 10 in the staff canteen for drinks and canapes. Mr Williamson gave a speech thanking the employees.
A spokesman acknowledged that “it would have been better not to have gathered in this way at that particular time”. London was in Tier 2, which banned any social mixing between households.
- December 15 2020: Downing Street quiz
A Christmas quiz for Number 10 staff is reported to have been held on December 15 in the Cabinet Office. The Mirror published an image appearing to show the Prime Minister presiding over a quiz round.
An email seen by the Mirror shows a senior official told partygoers they should leave through the back door. It also appeared to show that organisers planned days in advance for some staff to enjoy the quiz in person, from the office.
Downing Street said Mr Johnson “briefly took part virtually in a quiz” to thank staff for their hard work during the pandemic. London was still in Tier 2 at the time.
- December 16 2020: Department for Transport party
The Mirror reported senior civil servants were “boozing and dancing” at the event, allegedly planned by staff from Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’ office.
A DfT spokesman said: “Fewer than a dozen staff who were working in the office had a low-key, socially distanced gathering in the large open-plan office after work on December 16, where food and drink was consumed. We recognise this was inappropriate and apologise for the error of judgment.”
London was in Tier 3 restrictions banning household mixing both indoors and in outdoor hospitality venues or private gardens.
- December 17 2020: Cabinet Office “Christmas party!”
The Times reported that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case attended the party in the Cabinet Office, that it had been organised by a private secretary and that it was included in digital calendars as “Christmas party!”
The Cabinet Office confirmed a quiz took place, but a spokesperson said: “The Cabinet Secretary played no part in the event, but walked through the team’s office on the way to his own office.”
London was still in Tier 3.
- December 18 2020: Christmas party at Downing Street
First reported by the Mirror, the Downing Street Christmas Party was allegedly attended by dozens of No 10 officials who gathered for drinks and party games until the early hours.
For a week, the Government denied there had been a party, until a video of Mr Johnson’s spokesperson Allegra Stratton emerged, in which she appeared to joke about the event. Ms Stratton then stepped down.
London was still in Tier 3.
- April 16 2021: Drinks and dancing the night before the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral
The Telegraph reported that advisers and civil servants gathered at No 10 for two separate events on the Friday night.
They were marking the departure of Mr Johnson’s then-director of communications James Slack, as well as one of the PM’s personal photographers, the newspaper said. Mr Slack, who is now deputy editor of The Sun, has apologised for his role in the party.
Witnesses told The Telegraph that alcohol was drunk and guests danced to music, with around 30 people attending both events which eventually merged into one.
At the time restrictions banned gatherings indoors between different households. There was an exemption for “work purposes” but this did not mention socialising at work.
- Drinks at the Department for Work and Pensions
The Mirror has reported that staff at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) would regularly enjoy informal drinks after office hours throughout the pandemic, amid restrictions on socialising.
The newspaper reported that Tory minister Therese Coffey regularly held “notorious late night karaoke sessions” in her office. One source said there were “office parties all the time” with a “constant flow of booze in the office”.
A DWP spokesman said: “The team regularly worked late into the evening and on a number of occasions they ate takeaway food and drank some alcohol. No karaoke took place. On one occasion close to Christmas, the Secretary of State gave gifts to her core team, as she does every year.”
‘They don’t live in our world’
Raza Ghulam was a family man
(Image: Ghulam family)
Nicola remembers her husband Raza being “really excited” for the birth of his second grandchild, which was only a few months away when he fell ill with Covid.
Raza, who managed a Range warehouse in Bristol, and his brother Ghulam, a taxi driver, were treated in adjoining beds at the Royal Gwent Hospital, where they died on April 22, 2020.
The day Raza was taken to hospital, he told Nicola where she could find their insurance papers in case he didn’t come back. “I was just gobsmacked,” she said. “I think he knew.”
That was to be Nicola’s last conversation with the man she described as her soulmate. While in hospital Raza called their son Connor, 25, who offered to bring a toothbrush in. Raza replied: “Don’t worry about that son. Just do me a favour. Look after your mum for me.”
Raza was put on a ventilator soon afterwards and his condition deteriorated over the next month. Nicola was not allowed to visit until the day he died, when she got a call from the hospital at 2.30am.
“They said they would try to keep him alive until I got there. I put PPE [personal protective equipment] on and the doctors let me sit at his bedside and hold his hand. All the doctors were around his bed with me. For five minutes he was there, and then he passed.
“That night I had to catch a taxi home. I couldn’t go near my sons. I had to leave my clothes outside in a black bag and have a shower and then I just sat there. I couldn’t do anything. It still gives me nightmares every day that I had to ring my sons and say ‘dad’s passed’ and I couldn’t even hug them.”
Raza Ghulam and his widow Nicola Mincher, who only saw him once in his final weeks
(Image: Ghulam family)
Raza Ghulam and Nicola Mincher
(Image: Ghulam family)
Only five people attended the funeral because of restrictions. For Nicola, the loneliness since Raza’s death has been “horrific”. When she found out Downing Street parties had taken place over Christmas 2020, while she was limiting contact with her family as she mourned her husband, she was “gobsmacked”.
“I was absolutely disgusted,” said the 52-year-old. “It’s one rule for them and another for the little people. They don’t live in our world. They do whatever they want.”
Nicola, who cannot bring herself to say the name of the Prime Minister, said: “The speech he’s made about the parties was just excuses. I don’t know anyone who brings their own bottle to a work meeting. He should have resigned a long time ago. I can’t even watch him on television.”
Her anger is not limited to the parties. She calls Johnson’s time in office “disaster after disaster” and believes he should have done far more to control the spread of Covid early in the pandemic, from border control to public messaging.
‘One rule for them’
Dr Saleyha Ahsan, who lost her father to Covid in the pandemic, said she believes the Prime Minister’s is insulting.
“One rule for them” is a phrase which has been hard to escape in the shockwaves of partygate. Johnson said he joined the May 20 garden event because he wanted to thank his staff for their hard work fighting Covid, but no one has worked harder than NHS employees during the pandemic. And the responses of many of them to this scandal have been damning.
Dr Saleyha Ahsan, who lost her father to Covid, was working at Bangor Hospital in the early months of the crisis. “And what was I doing in May 2020?” she said. “I was dressed in PPE. Yeah, the weather was warm. I was sweating, trying not to pass out every time I went into the contamination room to see a patient who had Covid in our full PPE. We weren’t going out in the evenings to gather as colleagues to have drinks.”
Bridgend nurse Leanne Lewis was working in acute Covid wards in May 2020. She told WalesOnline her team was “at absolute breaking point”, coming home each night “in tears, stressed and frightened”.
Leanne Lewis shares picture of her in tears after a shift at work in May 2020
(Image: Leanne Lewis)
On one weekend that month, two of Leanne’s colleagues died with Covid within hours of each other. “It wasn’t unusual,” she said. “We were hearing it more and more. I had friends whose parents had also died with the virus. These were not elderly or ill people. It was absolutely terrifying – and we were people who were sticking to the rules. I’m in disbelief that this [Downing Street party] was happening at that time. Words fail me.”
Dean Burnett says his father Peter, from Port Talbot, was a man who only lived to 58 but had 600 years’ worth of stories, “a big-hearted man who always looked after those around him”. Peter, a property developer, spent around a fortnight in hospital before dying of Covid on April 20, 2020.
Dean Burnett and dad Peter
(Image: Burnett family)
Unable to visit due to restrictions, Dean remembers sitting in his pyjamas in his kitchen when he got a call from the hospital. He was given 20 minutes’ notice for a final call to his father. “My final words to him were said over a phone, held to his unconscious ear by a consultant. It was as brutal as you imagine. I told him, ‘You did a good job.'”
As reports of Downing Street parties have mounted, Dean increasingly struggles to feel anything but “numbness”. He added: “You are so angry that it pushes you beyond. It’s like stretching an elastic band so far that it goes too floppy.”
The “most jarring” thing for Dean was when the Prime Minister defended Dominic Cummings’ lockdown-breaking trip to Barnard Castle in March 2020.
“Covid had killed someone very close to me and the idea of inflicting it on someone else by not obeying the rules was unimaginable to me,” he said. “I was emotionally distraught and I still had to look after my kids, but because of lockdown there was no one to rally round like they would normally when you lose someone. To then hear Boris Johnson say Cummings did what any good parent would do, it was a massive slap in the face to all parents across the country who had been following the rules.”
Police fined Carol and David Richards £60 on Sunday as they returned home to Bridgend from visiting Carol’s mother in a care home in Porthcawl.
“One rule for them” may also be the sentiment of the many people fined for Covid breaches. A woman in Hackney was fined £12,000 after throwing a birthday party on the day of Prince Phillip’s funeral. The day earlier, Downing Street staff had reportedly brought a suitcase full of wine into a No 10 garden party.
Then there was the fine handed to Bridgend couple David and Carol Richards in January 2021, the month after Christmas parties in Downing Street. The couple travelled 20 minutes to see Carol’s 94-year-old mother Decima in a Porthcawl care home, with the permission of care staff. They spoke to her through the window of her ground-floor room before returning home. Police issued a £60 fine which was later cancelled.
It is easy to forget the backlash in the early stages of the pandemic against incidents which now pale in comparison to the parties at Downing Street. In March 2020, Stephen Kinnock, the MP for Aberavon, posted a picture of himself on a chair outside his parents’ London home on his dad’s birthday. Mr Kinnock, who was sitting metres from his parents, earned a rebuke from police, who told him “this is not essential travel”.
And in a viral tweet this week, LBC’s Matthew Thompson pointed out: “Every so often, you remember that in April 2020, Scotland’s chief medical officer [Catherine Calderwood] resigned because she visited her own second home, with her own immediate family.”
Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party are all calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation. At the time of writing five Tory MPs have announced they have written to the chairman of the 1922 Committee – which organises Tory leadership contests – to say they have no confidence in the prime minister.
This is some way short of the 54 letters required to trigger a vote, but people across the UK have made too many sacrifices to forget Johnson’s betrayal.
When Johnson was a 17-year-old student at Eton, his teacher Martin Hammond wrote in his school report: “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation that binds everyone else.”
It seems that Johnson’s conviction in his own exceptionality will, now, be his downfall.
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