LONDON — London’s Metropolitan Police announced Tuesday that its officers were launching a criminal investigation into “BYOB” bashes and other parties allegedly held at the prime minister’s office and residence at 10 Downing Street during Britain’s coronavirus lockdowns, a politically perilous development sure to raise pressure on the government.
In remarks at London City Hall, the chief promised that the police would investigate “without fear or favor,” adding that “I absolutely understand that there is deep public concern about the allegations that have been in the media over the past several weeks.”
These alleged parties — British media have revealed 14 events — pose a significant threat to Boris Johnson’s premiership and his government.
Now, the gatherings are no longer just embarrassing. They may be criminal.
Johnson’s spokesman said the prime minister did not believe he had broken any laws.
Johnson told lawmakers Tuesday that he welcomed the decision by police to conduct their own investigation, “because I believe it will help to give the public the clarity it needs and help to draw a line under matters.”
The prime minister is facing a rebellion in his Conservative Party by lawmakers upset over what they see as reckless hypocrisy. The opposition Labour Party’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, called Johnson a “national distraction” and said the alleged parties show that the prime minister and his staff ignored rules they imposed on the British people. A leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey, told the BBC that Johnson “has to go. He should resign.”
Social media posts by ordinary citizens have recalled the heartbreak of forgoing weddings, birthdays, funerals and visits to hospitals because of the government’s lockdown rules.
The country is also awaiting an investigative report by senior civil servant Sue Gray into the party allegations. Her report — or a summary of it — was expected to be published this week. But with an active criminal investigation underway, it is possible that Gray might pause some lines of her inquiry and deal only with those gatherings not under police investigation.
Gray has turned material over to the police, a spokesman for 10 Downing Street said.
Police probes into party-making here during the two-year pandemic have typically focused on rowdy youths congregating in city parks or DJs hosting pop-up events — not on garden gatherings at the very center of the British establishment.
The police commissioner said that her officers usually would not investigate retrospective breaches of lockdown rules but that they would pursue the potentially most serious cases.
The chief said she would report on the investigation as it proceeded. But Johnson, his cabinet and spokespeople are limited in what they can say publicly, as the matter is now in police hands.
Downing Street has already apologized to Queen Elizabeth II for two parties on April 16, the eve of her husband’s funeral. And Johnson, speaking to Parliament, apologized for another event, a “bring your own booze” garden party on May 20, 2020. Downing Street has maintained that other gatherings were work events.
The news that police will investigate came after a British broadcaster on Monday reported that yet another alleged “bash” had occurred, this one with cake and singing to celebrate Johnson’s birthday in June 2020, at a time when rules designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus forbade indoor social gatherings.
ITV News also said that on the evening of the same day, Johnson hosted family and friends upstairs in the prime minister’s residence, another breach of the government’s orders.
A Downing Street spokesperson told The Washington Post on Monday night that staff members “gathered briefly in the Cabinet Room after a meeting to wish the prime minister a happy birthday. He was there for less than 10 minutes.”
As for the alleged evening party, the spokesperson said: “This is totally untrue. In line with the rules at the time, the prime minister hosted a small number of family members outside that evening.”
The British transport secretary, Grant Shapps, speaking for the government to Sky News on Tuesday, said, “The prime minister clearly didn’t organize to be given a cake. … Some people came forward and thought it would be appropriate for his birthday.”
Shapps called the gathering for cake “unwise, I’m sure, given the circumstances as we know them.”