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Partygate spin

Partygate spin


20 fines will be handed out to people in government who breached lockdown rules by going to parties in Number 10 and elsewhere across Whitehall, it emerged this week. Throughout this saga the government has ducked and dived, but, with the first tranche of fines confirmed, can it continue to deny laws were broken?

“20 police fines for breaking lockdown rules in Downing Street and Whitehall, but the Met says there could be more.”

BBC News

Remember partygate? The revelations, beginning before Christmas, that people in government had broken lockdown rules by hosting parties in Whitehall departments and even Number 10 itself? 

“The Prime Minister, his future wife and several groups of staff enjoying cheese and wine. Today Boris Johnson asked a brief explanation.” 

ITV News

“Those were people at work, talking about work.”

Boris Johnson

A lot has happened since then. The Russian invasion of Ukraine changed – we tell ourselves – everything. There’s a war in Europe. 

But now Downing Street’s partygate problem has reared its head again. 

The Metropolitan Police has issued 20 fines to people in government, which means it found that coronavirus laws were broken. 

And there’s plenty we still don’t know – including who got the fines, which of the twelve events being investigated they were at, and if the Prime Minister himself will get one. Downing Street says it will tell us if he does.

We’ve come a long way from a Number 1o spokesperson telling the Daily Mirror on the 30th of November 2021… in response to the first report of a party… that Covid rules were followed at all times. 

So how has the government’s response changed over time?


“I expect my leaders to shoulder the responsibility for the actions they take. Yesterday he did the opposite of that. So I will remind him of a quotation altogether too familiar to him of Leo Amery to Neville Chamberlain: “You have sat there too long for all the good you have done. In the name of God, go.

David Davis

Not that long ago it looked like these parties could spell the end of Boris Johnson. The public were furious. Conservative MPs were furious.

But the Metropolitan Police investigation delayed a report by senior civil servant Sue Gray, so for a while, everything went quiet.

Then war broke out and suddenly allegations of cheese and wine parties during lockdown seemed less important.

But this week’s revelations matter, because they give a definitive answer to one question at least: there was lawbreaking at the heart of the government. 

And they tell us something else, too, because we can now look back at the way the Downing Street operation tried, in vain, to cover it up. 

“One newspaper, the Daily Mirror, asserts that the Prime Minister did not behave responsibly last year at a party in November 27th.”


The Prime Minister’s media, or spin operation, at this time, was led by a man called Jack Doyle – Number 10’s Director of Communications.

The official line when those first reports of lockdown-breaking parties emerged was that “Covid rules have been followed at all times.” 

The Insider news website found 39 times in the fortnight that followed when the government said no rules were broken.

“I don’t even think they were parties that I’m aware of, but the point is whether it was in Number 10 or any government department all rules would’ve been followed.”

Sajid Javid

“The Prime Minister said quite clearly on Wednesday at PMQs that all guidance was followed.”

Maggie Throup

“What I can tell you is that all the guidelines were observed, continue to be observed.”

Boris Johnson

In the end though, that line couldn’t last. So, with the trickle of new revelations continuing into the new year, the tone changed. 

Come mid-January, as evidence emerged that the Prime Minister joined staff for socially distanced in the Downing Street garden whilst the country was in lockdown, it was this:

“I believed implicitly that this was a work event.”

Boris Johnson

…and this…

“I believed implicitly that this was a work event”

Boris Johnson


Since then, the man who advised the Prime Minister about how to respond to those initial reports of parties, Jack Doyle, has gone. He had to quit after it emerged he’d given a speech at a Downing Street party held when Covid restrictions were in place.

He was replaced by Guto Harri, who is now in charge of the government’s public response to those fines.

Here’s deputy prime minister Dominic Raab earlier this week.

“Yes, inevitably fixed penalty notices are for those who have breached the regulations.”

Dominic Raab

But the Prime Minister’s spokesperson wouldn’t concede that the the fines meant the law had been broken

That Number 10 lobby briefing went down as one of the weirder ones. Now the context is quite important and, in a way, shows why this story is so interesting. The spokesperson themselves is known to have attended lockdown parties – the very individual giving the briefing.

Lara Spirit, Tortoise

This is my colleague, Lara Spirit, who covers Westminster for Tortoise.

So it’s tense, because yes, Downing St are briefing for the PM – but in quite an unusual sense they’re briefing for themselves, too. It’s a story which involves them. So it’s more tense than other issues. And in this one, it was bizarre: journalists wanted to confirm that the PM accepts the law had been broken – that’s what these fines mean, right? – and, even though Raab had already admitted this, this spokesperson would not…”

Lara Spirit, Tortoise

For Boris Johnson the immediate threat has subsided, but he could still be fined and he’s got the local elections in May. If the results are bad he could be in danger again.

In the meantime though, he’s on a charm offensive with those who will ultimately decide his future in the short term – Conservative MPs.

He hosted them all for dinner and gave a performance that got mixed reviews. One former minister told The Times “it was good” and a “great turnout”, but a prominent critic of the Prime Minister denied reports he’d been given a standing ovation. They instead described it as “polite applause”. 

He’s not out of the woods yet.



Thanks for listening to today’s episode of the Sensemaker.

You can join us on Twitter Spaces at 12.30 UK time every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday to discuss the stories we cover in the podcast. Just search for @ Tortoise to join the conversation.

Today’s episode was written by Lara Spirit and mixed by Imy Harper.