Boris Johnson’s premiership was plunged deeper into crisis on Monday after it emerged that he had a birthday party during England’s first lockdown in 2020, despite Covid rules at the time banning indoor social gatherings.
Johnson has consistently denied knowledge of parties in Downing Street, but he attended a surprise get-together in the cabinet room to celebrate his birthday in June of that year, along with up to 30 guests.
The disclosure of the Downing Street celebration, first reported by ITV News and confirmed by the FT, will fuel concerns among Tory MPs that the prime minister disregarded Covid rules that he imposed on the rest of England.
When the gathering took place pubs, restaurants, hairdressers and non-essential shops were closed, while outdoor gatherings were limited to the rule of six. Schools also remained closed to most pupils.
“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” said one former cabinet minister. “For those who haven’t made their mind up this is surely the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” said Andrew Bridgen, one of seven Tory MPs to publicly demand that Johnson quits.
One senior Tory said it was “inevitable” more MPs would demand a no-confidence vote in Johnson by submitting letters to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee of backbench Conservative MPs. A member of the 1922 executive said the latest revelations were “fatal”.
The account of the latest event comes as Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, finalises her report into alleged parties in Downing Street during Covid lockdowns.
That report is due out later this week. One person briefed on the Gray inquiry said she was already aware of the allegations about Johnson’s birthday party and they would not further delay her inquiry.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader, said: “We cannot afford to go on with this chaotic, rudderless government. The prime minister is a national distraction and he’s got to go.”
Johnson’s birthday get-together was attended by Downing Street staff. Lulu Lytle, designer of the redecoration of the prime minister’s Downing Street flat, was also there.
A spokesperson for Lytle confirmed she was present in Downing Street on June 19 “working on the refurbishment” of Johnson’s flat. “Lulu was not invited to any birthday celebrations for the prime minister as a guest. Lulu entered the cabinet room briefly as requested, while waiting to speak with the prime minister.”
Downing Street said the prime minister attended for less than ten minutes, while those at the gathering ate picnic food.
“A group of staff working in Number 10 that day gathered briefly in the cabinet room after a meeting to wish the prime minister happy birthday,” a spokesman said.
Johnson’s supporters tried to play down the event. “So, when people in an office buy a cake in the middle of the afternoon for someone else they are working in the office with and stop for ten minutes to sing happy birthday and then go back to their desks, this is now called a party?” tweeted Nadine Dorries, culture secretary.
Johnson’s supporters believe the prime minister is being targeted in a series of orchestrated leaks. Dominic Cummings, his former chief adviser, is leading the calls for him to quit.
Some Tory MPs believe Johnson may receive a temporary reprieve from an unlikely source: the Kremlin. “If you look at what’s happening in Ukraine, I don’t think now’s the time for a leadership contest,” said one Tory MP.
Johnson raised the rhetoric on Monday by warning that Russia was planning “a lightning war that could take out Kyiv”. Defence officials briefed a group of around 100 MPs from all parties on Monday about the threat.
James Gray, a veteran Tory MP, said the party could rally around the prime minister in the event of a conflict in Ukraine, just as they had last week after Tory MP Christian Wakeford defected to Labour.
“So what do Christian Wakeford and Vladimir Putin have in common?” he asked in a newsletter. “They may both be the very saviour which Boris Johnson needs.”
However David Davis, former Brexit secretary, noted that the Conservative party had ditched its leader — Neville Chamberlain — in 1940. The party also ousted Margaret Thatcher in 1990 ahead of the first Gulf war.