Boris Johnson has been accused of giving a speech at a leaving do for his defence adviser in December 2020 when Covid restrictions were in force.
The prime minister has been embroiled in an ongoing scandal over a number of parties that were held at Downing Street while the public was being told to obey social distancing rules.
According to The Mirror, Mr Johnson attended Captain Steve Higham’s leaving party “for a few minutes” in which he gave a speech “to thank him for his service”. The newspaper said a “small number of No 10 staff briefly said goodbye”.
Although the exact date of the leaving do is not revealed, it was reportedly held in the run-up to Christmas, when London was under Covid rules.
People were at the time being advised to work from home where possible and separate households were not allowed to mix indoors unless a household was linked to another as part of a “social bubble”. Those rules came into force on 2 December 2020.
The number of people allowed at weddings, funerals, and wakes were also severely limited.
London then went into tier 3 on 16 December and escalated quickly to tier 4 four days later.
On 19 December, Mr Johnson stood at his lectern to announce the harsher measures, and told the public that Covid case numbers were rising rapidly in London and surrounding counties despite the “tough restrictions which are already in place”.
Tier 4 rules saw “non-essential” shops and services close, people told they could not meet more than one other person outdoors, leave tier 4 areas, stay overnight away from home, or leave the country.
As the Partygate scandal intensifies with frequent new accusations of lockdown-breaking parties, senior civil servant Sue Gray has been tasked with the responsibility of investigating the claims.
The Telegraph has reported that Mr Johnson has now been questioned by Ms Gray over the allegations and has shared with her what he knows ahead of a report on her findings being published.
Mr Johnson has claimed that he did not know in advance about a No 10 garden party on 20 May 2020 but admitted attending it as he spoke in the Commons last week. But a columnist has accused him of lying, citing people who had worked with Mr Johnson who allegedly said he did know about the party before it took place.
Sunday Times columnist Dominic Lawson claimed that at least two people warned Mr Johnson that an email invite sent out to staff by his principal private secretary Martin Reynolds made it obvious that it was a party and that it “should be immediately cancelled”.
Mr Lawson added: “I was told that Johnson’s dismissive response was to say they were ‘overreacting’ and to praise Reynolds as ‘my loyal Labrador’.
“I then asked someone who has known the PM for decades what could have made him take such an approach (other than natural hospitality and affability). His immediate answer was: ‘It’s because deep down he obviously thought the regulations were ridiculous, so why should he observe them?’”
These shocking allegations could mean that the prime minister may face claims that he breached the ministerial code by misleading MPs when he made his apology and insisted that the party was a “work event”.
Downing Street has insisted that it is “untrue” that Mr Johnson knew about the party in advance of it happening.
It comes after it emerged over the weekend that his wife Carrie Johnson was photographed breaking Covid social distancing rules in September 2020, when she celebrated her friend’s engagement. She said that she regretted her “lapse in judgement”.
Andrew Bowie, Conservative MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, said that the “atmosphere in the Conservative Party is a mixture of shame, anger and disappointment” as the Partygate saga continues.
The former party vice-chairman told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour that he intends to wait for the publication of Ms Gray’s investigation before deciding “what happens next”.
On the prime minister’s statement in the Commons, he said “it was quite clear that the apology didn’t cut it in the eyes of many members of the public and in the eyes of many members of the Conservative Party, actually.”
Mr Bowie also said: “There is a lot of ill-feeling out there and discomfort on the Conservative benches at where we are right now.”
West Dorset MP Chris Loder said he had received an “enormous” number of emails from constituents about the scandal, and suggested the parties have put the “moral authority” of government into question.
MP Robert Syms has said that he is considering submitting a letter of no confidence in Mr Johnson’s leadership. It comes after MP Tim Loughton said he had “regretfully come to the conclusion that Boris Johnson’s position is now untenable”.
A number of MPs have sent such correspondence to the influential 1922 Committee of backbench Tories.
Letters from 54 MPs – 15 per cent of the total number of Conservative MPs – are needed to spark a challenge to the PM’s leadership.