It isn’t just parties at Downing St where the Prime Minister broke his own rules. He did it over his second home as well.
Nimo omer, narrating:
Hi, I’m Nimo and this is the Sensemaker.
One story, every day, to make sense of the world.
Today, the story of Boris Johnson’s second home and how, here at Tortoise, we think we can show that the prime minister broke lockdown rules just moments after he set them for everyone else.
A Prime Minister, you may or may not know, doesn’t just get the flat above Downing Street as their home when they’re elected to run the country they also get access to Chequers, a manor house in the Buckinghamshire countryside.
Leaders can make use of the second home as they like and Boris Johnson and his wife, Carrie, are no exception.
Chequers has been at the heart of a mystery for us at Tortoise.
Because back in June 2020 we got a tip off.
We were told Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie had made use of that second home at rather a surprising time: the start of the first lockdown when you weren’t supposed to travel.
And last week we finally got to the truth: that the prime minister broke his own Covid rules to commute to Chequers.
So what happened? And why did it take 18 months for the truth to come out?
Let’s go back to March 2020. We’re all learning to wear masks and use hand sanitiser.
“Now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel…”Boris Johnson speaking in March 2020
That was Boris Johnson speaking on 16 March.
A week later the government made it clear that this included no travel to second homes.
And on 23 March 2020, the prime minister made that famous TV announcement about the very first national lockdown:
“From this evening, I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home. Because the critical thing we must do is stop the disease spreading between households.”Boris Johnson speaking in March 2020
That announcement was watched by 27 million people. It was the first time a minister had addressed the nation since Tony Blair committed British forces to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
What did Boris Johnson do after finishing his historic pre-recorded address?
After telling the rest of the country to stay at home, we believe the prime minister then did exactly the opposite. He got in his car and travelled the 41 miles from his flat in Downing Street to his country house in Chequers.
We’ve put this to Downing Street and they don’t deny it. We’ve given them plenty of opportunities.
So how did we get to the bottom of this story?
This is Lara Spirit, a reporter at Tortoise.
“So the story actually starts before I even started working at Tortoise back in June 2020…”Lara Spirit, Tortoise
When a source first told us that the Johnsons had used Chequers against the rules in March 2020 we asked Downing Street – and they said they hadn’t.
Fast forward 18 months and “partygate” is in full flow.
“The British Prime Minister Boris Johnson facing huge political pressure has admitted that he was at a party in the garden of Downing Street, or a gathering at least, during the first lockdown in May 2020, but he claimed it was a work event.”BBC News
“When the whole country was locked down he was hosting boozy parties in Downing Street. is he now going to do the decent thing and resign?”Keir Starmer, House of Commons
So we returned to the story and Lara got to work.
First, we asked Downing Street about the period between 16 March to 27 March – when the country was being told to stay home. We asked them more than once, actually: did Boris Johnson go to Chequers during this time, as we’d been told he did?
This time we got no denials, but instead: a lot of obfuscation.
“At this stage we decided to publish what we knew: that the Johnsons were alleged to have moved between Chequers and Downing Street, that this happened around the time or just before both of them tested positive with Covid, and that members of the Chequers staff got sick around the same time.”Lara Spirit, Tortoise
After we published that story last week, Number 10 called us back. They finally confirmed that actually, yes, the Prime Minister had commuted during that period. But we still didn’t know exactly how many times, and when, he’d travelled between his two homes.
So we started picking at the details and looking at Carrie Johnson’s movements more closely.
We had another series of back and forths with Downing Street.
Over the weekend we were told different stories about where Carrie Johnson had been.
First, we were told she’d spent more than a week in March 2020 at Chequers, uninterrupted; without going back to Downing St at all. Her office told us she’d done that to minimise social contact. She was, of course, heavily pregnant at this time.
But then we asked them about an Instagram post she’d made…
“So there’s this photo of Carrie, lying on a bed with her dog Dilyn and the caption is “self-isolating with this one”, posted to her Instagram on 26 March 2020 – when I was told she was in Chequers. So I sent this photo over for confirmation and I got a new response: now they say she travelled to London on 24 March for an evening scan, spent the night in Downing Street, then had gone back again to Chequers, and then returned to Downing Street for the final time on 28 March.”Lara Spirit, Tortoise
It’s quite a different story to “uninterrupted” time at Chequers. And it’s important because after coming back to Downing Street Carrie Johnson began feeling unwell and tested positive for Covid.
And around this same time, Chequers closed because of Covid.
We have one important question remaining.
As I said at the beginning, we think Boris Johnson made his famous lockdown speech on 23 March 2020 telling everyone to stay at home, and travelled to Chequers very soon afterwards.
But the press office in 10 Downing still won’t tell us what time he made that journey.
It matters because, if it’s true, it’s a glaring example of the Prime Minister not playing by the rules he was setting for the rest of us.
We want to know what time he went, and when his other trips to Chequers around this time were. Remember: the PM got Covid on 27 March – so for these days that we’re looking at, he was most likely infectious.
It may not be the only time Boris Johnson has been guilty of breaking his own Covid rules, but it looks as if it might be the first.
And there are some other important questions we need to get to the bottom of…
“We still don’t know why the PM and Mrs Johnson considered Chequers more safe for Carrie, who was heavily pregnant at the time. It makes little sense when so much shuttling took place, and of course seems even more illogical when staff at Chequers came into contact with the pair and later tested positive.”Lara Spirit, Tortoise
What we do know is that Boris Johnson asked one thing of the public and did another himself.
We know that he commuted between his second home and Downing Street after telling the rest of the country to stop non-essential travel, and then to stay at home altogether.
And we know that – even when pushed repeatedly – the Downing Street operation has been determined to cover up the movements of a leader who, increasingly, seems to have nowhere left to hide.
Today’s story was written by Lara Spirit and produced by Ella Hill.
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