Downing Street Christmas party: Could the video leak lead to prosecutions, and how will the fallout impact on Covid-19 compliance?
If the transgressions of Dominic Cummings and Matt Hancock during the coronavirus pandemic rocked Boris Johnson’s government, the revelations about last December’s Downing Street party could well scupper it altogether.
After days of repeated denials by the Prime Minister and senior members of his Cabinet that the event took place at all, his latest course of action is a logical fallacy – an inquiry into a gathering that Mr Johnson still insists did not happen, and the promise of disciplinary action, despite the fact he says no rules were broken.
It is a combination of panic and contempt, and the promise of an investigation by Cabinet Secretary Simon Case has been undermined from the get-go, given Downing Street refuses to say whether he was among those who attended the party.
The growing anger, particularly within Conservative ranks, will not be quelled by internal inquiries, especially when so many are calling for a criminal investigation.
The Metropolitan Police has announced that it will be looking the now notorious video footage as part of its “considerations,” but stressed the force’s policy was “not to routinely investigate retrospective breaches of Covid-19 regulations”.
That may well be the case, but there is a compelling argument that an exception should be made when any alleged breach involves the Prime Minister. In any case, there is no reason in law for a case not to be brought if the evidence is sufficiently compelling.
Under the parent statute through which the regulations in England were brought into force, no time bar has passed that would prevent any investigation. Indeed, prosecutions can be brought up three years after any alleged offence, or six months from the time the prosecutor has knowledge of sufficient evidence to justify a prosecution.
As has been pointed out by Matthew Scott, a barrister and legal commentator, the key issue is whether a criminal law was broken, and whether Mr Johnson was among those who broke it.
“Providing a room in Downing Street for the party to be held could certainly be considered to be involvement in the organisation of the gathering,” he explained.
The insistence by Mr Johnson and others that no rules were broken may lean heavily on the small print in schedule three of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020.
Its provisions set out limited criteria for “permitted organised gatherings”, which include those operated by “a public body”. Mr Johnson has not yet explicitly said as much, but the inference may be that given Downing Street is owned by the government, there was no breach.
Mr Scott, however, pointed out that even that argument was complicated by the fact that part of Downing Street is also Mr Johnson’s official accommodation.
Another barrister, Adam Wagner, visiting professor of law at Goldsmiths University of London, said Mr Johnson has to be more transparent about the event in question and, in particular, any reassurances he received around its legality.
“I have an inkling that the Prime Minister has been advised that the law didn't apply to 10 Downing Street,” he tweeted.
“If that is the case, that itself is a scandal [and] how long have they thought that for, and did they act as if it didn't apply deliberately?”
Even if there are no legal repercussions for Mr Johnson, the political fallout could be catastrophic. There is a growing sense the arrogance, contempt and evasiveness that have characterised his response to the issue has crossed a line.
The inquiry may well find that he obeyed the letter of the law, but if it transpires that he or his staff knowingly flouted its spirit, it may not save him. The reason for that was evident in the impassioned reaction from those who have lost loved ones during the pandemic.
Jackie Green, whose 86-year-old mother had died in hospital from Covid-19 on the day of the party, asked: “How could people behave like that? These people are supposed to be leading this country.”
A snap poll by Savanta ComRes of more than 1,000 adults across the UK echoed such sentiments. More than half (54 per cent) of those questioned said Mr Johnson should resign.
But the repercussions are far more extensive – and important – than the political future of Mr Johnson and the Conservatives. There are fears the revelations could seriously hinder the ongoing effort to mitigate the impact of the pandemic at a time when Omicron variant infections are spreading like wildfire.
Charles Walker, the former vice-chair of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, warned the incident had left the government without the authority to impose “anything but voluntary” Covid-19 measures in the future.
"People, if required in law not to meet friends and relatives, will say, ‘look, it didn't happen last year at No 10 Downing Street, [so] it is not going to happen this year at No 10 Acacia Avenue’,” he cautioned.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney said Downing’s Street’s contempt for the public was “exactly what you do not need at a time of national emergency and of the gravity that we face”, adding the “clear lies” of UK ministers posed a serious threat to the recovery effort.
For the SNP and Labour, this is a moment of moral reckoning for Mr Johnson, and it would not be hyperbolic to suggest the fallout could well reshape UK politics.
Only on Tuesday, a Survation poll handed Labour its biggest lead over the Tories since the 57-year-old became Prime Minister, polling 39 per cent to 36 per cent. That modest lead was built up on the back of the Tory sleaze and second jobs scandal. The party allegations are even more damaging.
In Scotland, meanwhile, support for independence has surged to its highest level for a year. Senior figures in the SNP have long viewed Mr Johnson as one of its greatest assets. The past 24 hours help explain why.