The Hound

The Number 10 garden and lawn;

Boris get out: was garden party held on Crown land not covered by Covid laws?

You’re reading Reaction. To get Iain Martin’s weekly newsletter, columnists including Tim Marshall, Maggie Pagano and Adam Boulton, full access to the site and invitations to member-exclusive events, become a member HERE. 

Lawyers advising the Prime Minister and his ministers on the legality of holding a party – or indeed what they keep referring to as a work event – at Number 10 believe there is a loophole in the law which permits such events to take place, according to MPs.

Number 10 is Crown land, effectively owned by the state, and not covered automatically by the public health laws in a pandemic.

Lawyers are focussed on Section 73 of the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984 which is the act of parliament under which all the new regulations were made. Section 73, subsection (4)(d), deals with Crown property. The subsection allows a government department to agree with the local authority that a specified and relevant provision in the act should apply to that property. Without that request the laws don’t apply on Crown property, say lawyers.

According to barristers who have studied the relevant sections, the government department responsible for 10 Downing Street, which is the Cabinet Office, could agree with Westminster City Council that the lockdown restrictions would apply on its premises.

However, in an article written last year, after news of the a party on 18 December 2020 broke which caused the departure of No 10 adviser, Allegra Stratton, the legal expert Joshua Rozenberg wrote: “Assuming no such agreement had been made — and I would be astounded if it had — then government premises are exempt from the regulations.”

If that is the case, this might explain the persistent defence being offered by Boris Johnson, his ministers and MPs, as to why the so-called party on 20 May 2020 was indeed a so-called “work event” and therefore permissible within a broad interpretation of the rules.

This also helps explain why the Metropolitan Police has been reluctant to get involved, if the partying happened on land not covered by the laws that apply everywhere else.

It does present Number 10 with a problem, and explains the careful, highly legalistic terms in which the Prime Minister partially apologised this week. A Tory MP said: “This is very tricky. Crown land gives them a technical get out but if they use it or shout about it then it is literally the definition of one law for them and one for the rest of us. Imagine the response of voters hearing this.”

At a meeting in the Commons this week, worried Johnson supporters were assured that their man would not be found to have broken the law and that the Sue Gray inquiry would clear him.

In an interview with Radio 4 on 6 December, Rosenberg explained that there are exceptions in the Covid regulations for what are called permitted organised gatherings. “These cover meetings on the premises of a public body. The working areas of Downing Street must surely come within that definition.”

He went on to suggest that the event might have been one of the gatherings necessary for certain purposes that are exempted under the regulations. These include a gathering that is reasonably necessary for work purposes.

Another legal expert, Adam Wagner, also tweeted at the time that news of the first party broke, that those attending the party may be exempt under Section 73.

In another twist, Rosenberg explained in his blog that under section 64A of the 1984 act, a prosecutor has six months to bring a prosecution “beginning with the date on which evidence which the prosecutor thinks is sufficient to justify the proceedings comes to the prosecutor’s knowledge”. There is an upper limit of three years from the date of the alleged offence.

Another barrister who has been poring over the details of the legitimacy of the so-called work event, is Matthew Scott, who published a detailed blog in December after the news broke. Scott, who publishes under the BarristerBlogger name, wrote at the time that: “If the party was confined to the government rooms and offices in the ‘official’ parts of No 10, it probably did not breach the criminal law, even though it was in flagrant breach of its spirit, as well as of the official advice and guidance, much of it emanating from the prime minister himself.”

However, this line of defence might prove tricky for the PM who, only days before the latest party story was published by ITV on 10 January, was told by one of his own Cabinet Office ministers that the regulations do apply.

On 7 January, in response to a question from Baroness Jones, Lord True said: “No 10 Downing Street is a Crown property. Regulations under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 which relate to the activities of people, apply regardless of whether those activities took place on Crown property or not.” Lord True is minister of state at the Cabinet Office, the department which has responsibility for No 10’s operations.

Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street for Parliament.

Work event? No such thing existed under draconian Covid laws

You’re reading Reaction. To get Iain Martin’s weekly newsletter, columnists including Tim Marshall, Maggie Pagano and Adam Boulton, full access to the site and invitations to member-exclusive events, become a member HERE. 

What exactly is a “work event”? Desperate ministers have been using the term to defend Boris Johnson’s conduct in relation to the infamous Downing Street party. The party was a work event, they say, as though that conveys legal legitimacy. The Prime Minister himself claimed on Wednesday that a boozy Downing Street party he attended during the first lockdown on 20 May was a “work event” that “technically” fell within the guidance.

Ministers are using this rhetorical device as cover in media interviews, and weirdly not being challenged on it. Perhaps there is so much government weirdness and implausibility to process that the simple question – what is this work event and where in the rules was it allowed? – goes unasked. 

There was no such “work event” justification or excuse in the rules or Covid laws at the time that allowed a 30-plus drinks gathering.

For Britons there was work, conducted in the office only if deemed essential, and even then there were clear rules on minimising contact. Work meetings were permitted for those in the workplace, but employees had to ensure that only those who really needed to be there should attend. Ministers issued thundering statements demanding compliance from businesses and employees.

Socialising such as it was in Britain in May 2020 happened at home with family or in the park, or on Zoom with friends.  Or in the park with one other person. It was a lonely time for millions of Britons.

Again, there was no such thing as a “work event” allowed by law. There was no mention of this hybrid half way between a meeting (for essential business) and full-blown party at the time because it wasn’t permitted.

The week before the party, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) issued a checklist called Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19) giving guidance for people who work in or run offices.

The risk assessment has no mention of the term “work event”, nor any justification for socialising in such areas.

It states: “Workers should try to minimise all meetings and other gatherings in the workplace” and that “only absolutely necessary participants should attend meetings and should maintain two-meter separation throughout.”

Another step the government asked businesses to take was “managing occupancy levels”. However, Martin Reynolds, the Principal Private Secretary, invited more than 100 aides to Number 10 on a day when Oliver Dowden, the then Secretary for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, told a press conference that “you can meet one person outside of your household”.

In terms of “moving around buildings and worksites”, the public were told to reduce “job and location rotation”.

There are still unknowns about what exactly happened that evening. Was social distancing abided by at all times? Reports suggest not. Were arrival and departure times staggered to reduce crowding? Did those running the event erect any COVID signposts or markings to reduce congestion?

Two rules, however, appear to have been followed. In the section on “Common Areas” workers are asked to use “safe outside areas for breaks” – in this case, the garden which given its size and dimensions was large enough for the 30 or so who attended. Employees also brought “their own food” and, by that logic, their own booze.

Number 10 is, of course, a workspace, but it is also the official residence of Johnson and his wife Carrie. According to Section 73 of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, pandemic regulations could have been interpreted as not applying to Crown Land – literally making it one rule for “them” and another for “us”. If this is the defence Number 10 plans to use, it’s pretty thin. Especially when the monarch dutifully followed the rules, and even mourned alone at her husband’s funeral.

Ultimately, it will be extremely hard to argue that the gathering was focused on work. As Reynolds wrote in that now infamous email: “After what has been an incredibly busy period, we thought it would be nice to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the Number 10 garden.”

That’s a party, though wanting to avoid a police investigation and fines, Number 10 has alighted on this bogus idea of a ” work event.”

Broadcasters should ask ministers to define a “work event” in the context of May 2020, because no such concept, no such get out, existed in the laws these people imposed on the rest of us.

Boris Johnson

PMQs: party’s over, Starmer tells Johnson

You’re reading Reaction. To get Iain Martin’s weekly newsletter, columnists including Tim Marshall, Maggie Pagano and Adam Boulton, full access to the site and invitations to member-exclusive events, become a member HERE. 

Sir Keir Starmer called for Boris Johnson to resign during a riotous Prime Minister’s Questions where Johnson faced a chorus of boos and jeers from opposition MPs. Tory MPs were, from the perspective of his survival or otherwise, ominously silent.

In his questions, the Labour leader branded the Prime Minister a “pathetic spectacle of a man who has run out of road” after he admitted he attended an illicit garden party during the first national lockdown. He also claimed that the public feel he is “lying through his teeth”, which Speaker Lindsay Hoyle allowed to go on-record despite complaints from the government front-bench  The party is over for the PM, said Starmer.

A grovelling Johnson said he understands the public’s rage. The PM, who has previously described Starmer as “Captain Hindsight”, deployed hindsight himself when he said that he wished he and his team had handled things differently. He claimed that the gathering of up to 40 aides in Downing Street was a “work event” and that the garden at Number 10 was an extension of the office.

The Chamber was packed, but disgruntled Conservative backbenchers stayed mute throughout and looked on as their leader tried to deflect an onslaught of calls to quit. The Scottish National Party’s Ian Blackford urged Tory MPs to “force him out the door”.

The situation for Johnson was so desperate that Alberto Costa, a Tory MP, asked a question about washing machine filters. It did not wash with the opposition who interrupted him with gales of laughter.

Under further questioning, Johnson repeated that he will not be commenting more until civil servant Sue Gray’s inquiry has concluded. The whole thing could be delayed by months if the Metropolitan Police launches a formal investigation, although the expectation now is that a robust Gray will not accept being blocked in this way.

Could Gray’s report when it lands as early as next week prove to be the end of Johnson? With reports that letters of no confidence are being sent to the 1922 Committee calling for a vote of no confidence the party may, indeed, be ending for the PM.

Here is the Prime Minister’s apology in full:

Mr Speaker, I want to apologise. 

I know that millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months. 

I know the anguish that they have been through, unable to mourn their relatives, unable to live their lives as they want or to do the things they love. 

And I know the rage they feel with me or with the government I lead when they think that in Downing Street itself, the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules. 

And though I cannot anticipate the conclusions of the current inquiry, I have learned enough to know that there were things we simply did not get right. 

And I must take responsibility. 

Number 10 is a big department with the garden as an extension of the office, which has been in constant use because of the role of fresh air in stopping the virus. 

And when I went into that garden, just after six on the 20th of May, 202, to thank groups and staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later, to continue working, I believed implicitly that this was a work event.

But Mr Speaker, with hindsight, I should have sent everyone back inside. 

I should have found some other way to thank them. 

And I should have recognised that even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance, there would be millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way. 

People who suffered terribly, people who are forbidden from meeting loved ones at all, inside or outside, and to them and to this House I offer my heartfelt apologies. 

And all I ask is that Sue Gray be allowed to complete her inquiry into that day and several others so that the full facts can be established.