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Timeline: A look at the alleged rule-breaking gatherings of Boris Johnson's government

It’s been a rollercoaster.

FROM CHEESE AND wine gatherings, to controversy around how a No 10 flat refurbishment was paid for, and an apology to the House of Commons over another gathering – political pressure doesn’t get much greater than this.

A barrage of controversies have embroiled Boris Johnson’s government in recent months, threatening the premiership of a politician elected in order to win elections for the Conservative Party with ease.

But now his Tory colleagues are wondering whether it is worth the political risk to support him anymore, as they field queries from angry and upset constituents who made sacrifices during pandemic restrictions.

But the first of the political controversies that crept up on Johnson didn’t involve cheese and wine or BYOB – but luxury wallpaper and a late-night House of Commons vote.

Johnson has faced scrutiny since early 2021 over how some £112,000 worth of renovations of his Downing Street flat were paid for by a Tory donor, in a controversy dubbed ‘wallpapergate’ – based on an £850-a-roll wallpaper chosen by Johnson’s wife.

A watchdog concluded that Johnson “unwisely” allowed the work on the apartment to go ahead without “more rigorous regard for how this would be funded”, but cleared him of breaking the rules.

This was upheld despite further revelations that hinted Johnson may have known more than he indicated to the inquiry. The refurbishments were paid for by a Tory donor, and the Tory party was fined £18,000 for the incident (close to the cap of £20,000).

Another sleaze row broke out in November 2021 when Conservative MP and former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson was found to have repeatedly lobbied ministers and officials for two companies paying him more than £100,000 per year.

Boris Johnson initially moved to prevent Paterson being disciplined for it by instructing Tory MPs to vote against a 30-day suspension and launching a review of the entire disciplinary system, but backed down when it was blocked by opposition parties and sparked public outrage.

Then – a series of reports began to trickle through that rule-breaking gatherings had been held by various British government departments, sparked by an explosive video published by ITV of a No 10 spokesperson joking about a “cheese and wine” gathering of civil servants that was later defended as a “business meeting”.

The “bring your own booze” party in the No 10 garden reported this week and a leaving party held during a period of national mourning in the UK are just the latest in a string of allegations of gatherings held across the British Government while coronavirus restrictions of various sorts were in place.

Here is a list of the gatherings that have been reported so far – starting with the two controversies from the summer in 2020 that have fuelled the latest bout of political pressure on Boris Johnson.

15 May 2020: Downing Street garden party

Boris Johnson, his wife Carrie, former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, and Boris Johnson’s principal private secretary Martin Reynolds were all pictured, in a photograph leaked to The Guardian, sitting around a table in the No 10 garden, with wine and cheese in front of them.

Some 15 other people were also in the photograph, but the Prime Minister has insisted this was a work meeting, saying: “Those were meetings of people at work, talking about work.”

20 May 2020: BYOB garden party

The latest revelation came in an email, leaked to ITV, from Mr Reynolds to more than 100 Downing Street employees asking them to “bring your own booze” for an evening gathering.

Multiple reports have suggested the Prime Minister attended the event with his wife.

13 November 2020: A leaving party for senior aide

According to reports at the time, Mr Johnson gave a leaving speech for Lee Cain, his departing director of communications and close ally of Mr Cummings.

13 November 2020: Johnsons’ flat party

There are allegations that the Prime Minister’s then fiancée hosted parties in their flat, with one such event said to have taken place on 13 November, the night Cummings departed No 10.

A spokesman for Carrie Johnson has called the claim “total nonsense”.

25 November 2020: Treasury drinks

A Treasury spokesperson told The Times a number of staff had come into the office to work on the Spending Review.

They said: “We have been made aware that a small number of those staff had impromptu drinks around their desks after the event.”

27 November 2020: A second staff leaving do

The Mirror reported that the Prime Minister gave a farewell speech to an aide at the end of November while the lockdown in England was still in place.

Other reports have said the leaving do was for Cleo Watson, a senior Downing Street aide and ally of Cummings.

10 December: Department for Education party

The DfE confirmed a social event had happened after The Mirror reported former education secretary Gavin Williamson threw a party and delivered a short speech at an event organised at his department’s Whitehall headquarters.

A spokesman acknowledged that “it would have been better not to have gathered in this way at that particular time”.

14 December: Party featuring Tory London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey and staff

Shaun Bailey apologised “unreservedly” for attending the gathering at Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) organised by staff on his campaign team.

“It was a serious error of judgment at a time when Londoners were making immense sacrifices to keep us all safe and I regret it wholeheartedly,” he tweeted.

He quit his role chairing the London Assembly’s police and crime committee after The Mirror published a picture showing him at the gathering.

15 December: Downing Street quiz

The Prime Minister appeared on contestants’ screens at the quiz but insisted he broke no rules.

An image published by the Sunday Mirror showed the Prime Minister flanked by colleagues, one draped in tinsel and another wearing a Santa hat, in No 10.

Downing Street admitted Mr Johnson “briefly” attended the quiz after the photographic evidence emerged but insisted it was a virtual event.

16 December: 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 16 December, where food and drink was consumed. We recognise this was inappropriate and apologise for the error of judgment.”

17 December: A Cabinet Office ‘Christmas party!’

A number of outlets reported that a gathering was held in the Cabinet Office on 17 December.

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The Times reported that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case attended the party in room 103 of the Cabinet Office, that it had been organised by a private secretary in Case’s team, 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.”

18 December: Christmas party at Downing Street

The claim which kicked off the rule-breaking allegations is that a party was held for Downing Street staff on 18 December.

Officials and advisers reportedly made speeches, enjoyed a cheese board, drank together and exchanged Secret Santa gifts, although the Prime Minister is not thought to have attended.

Johnson’s spokeswoman Allegra Stratton quit after being filmed joking about it with fellow aides at a mock press conference.

16 April 2021: Leaving party at No 10

A report in The Daily Telegraph newspaper on Friday claimed that two gatherings were held in No 10 in April last year, on the day before Prince Philip’s funeral.

This was during a time of national mourning in the UK and ongoing pandemic restrictions on indoor gatherings.

The newspaper reported accounts from witnesses, who said alcohol was drunk and guests danced to music, with a person sent to a local shop with a suitcase to buy wine.

The paper reported that two staff leaving events were held that evening, with both later merging into one. 

One gathering was a leaving party for Johnson’s former director of communications, James Slack, who said on Friday he was “deeply sorry” for the “anger and hurt” this event caused.

A Downing Street spokesperson said of Slack’s event: “On this individual’s last day he gave a farewell speech to thank each team for the work they had done to support him, both those who had to be in the office for work and on a screen for those working from home.”

Johnson’s spokesman said the prime minister was at his country residence Chequers on 16 April and had not been invited to the events.

The reports were heavily criticised by opposition politicians, many of whom once again called for Johnson to resign. No 10 then apologised to Buckingham Palance, saying it is “deeply regrettable” that the event took place during a time of national mourning. 

What happens next

Johnson’s political future depends on two things: one is the report from the “formidable” civil servant Sue Gray into the allegations that Johnson broke coronavirus lockdown rules at parties in Downing Street. 

The Times of London reports that that is expected to happen at the end of next week. 

The other is if 54 Conservative MPs write letters of no confidence in Johnson, which would trigger a vote on his position. Whether they write those letters may depend on the level of outage among their constituents.

The Metropolitan Police could also get involved with an investigation of its own, which could actually put off action being taken over the No 10 parties until their investigation concludes – but it’s worth noting hat they have been so-far reluctant to get involved.

- With reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha and Orla Dwyer 

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