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The Chequers back and forth

The Chequers back and forth

Our investigation into Boris Johnson’s use of Chequers at the start of the first lockdown has exposed not just the PM’s rule breaking, but also his corrosive effect on the rest of government

Read Lara Spirit’s report into the prime minister’s use of Chequers.


When I was a reporter covering the White House, I flew on Air Force One. I probably wasn’t the first passenger to eye the thick paper napkins embossed with the presidential seal and to decide to snaffle a couple as a souvenir. And so you can imagine how sheepish I felt as we got off the plane to discover that they gave each of us a farewell goodie bag, not just with a few napkins but with Air Force One boxes of M&Ms too.

Back in Britain, our treatment of the prime minister is more spartan. The PM doesn’t have his own plane. There are no Number 10-branded smarties, either. The British PM has nothing like the creature comforts of the US president. In the Downing Street flat – the home of the PM and his family – there are cleaners who come in, but there’s no staff on hand to cook meals, wash the dishes or do the laundry. 

But it is different at Chequers. At the prime minister’s 16th-century manor house, complete with tennis court, swimming pool and acres of Buckinghamshire countryside rolling into the Chiltern Hills, there’s a staff of about half a dozen people: chefs to cook, cleaners always there to tidy up, wash up and clean clothes. At Chequers, you’re taken care of. 

This is the context for the investigation that we have pursued for more than a year. I’m James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, I want to explain why, as a slow newsroom, we have doggedly pursued one story: Chequers. A story that reveals how the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the prime minister has corroded the integrity of Downing Street and made good people complicit in a culture of evasiveness, dissembling and double standards. 

Can I start by asking you to take your mind back to the spring of 2020? The death toll in Italy looked like a harbinger of things to come. The infection rate in the UK was climbing rapidly. The NHS feared it was about to be overwhelmed.

On Monday 16 March, Boris Johnson said “now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others, and to stop all unnecessary travel”. In particular, he warned of the risk of spreading the virus from London, where infection rates were particularly high. And for the avoidance of doubt, the government made clear six days later that “non-essential travel” meant not using caravans, holiday cottages and second homes – the Health Service feared the spread of the disease from the capital all over the country. 

Then on the evening of Monday 23 March, the prime minister made a pre-recorded televised address to the country. It was watched by 27 million people. He said: “From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.”

And, after recording that message, it now appears that he got in a car, left his home in Downing Street and drove to Chequers in Buckinghamshire. 

Actually, there’s a fair bit more to it than that. Lara Spirit, a reporter here at Tortoise, picked up a story others had been pursuing since June 2020 and here’s what she found out:

  • Carrie Symonds, now Mrs Johnson, was at the time expecting their first child. They’d held a baby shower at Chequers on the weekend of 14 March. She’d returned to London for the week of the 16th. She then went back to Chequers on Friday 20th. She was there until the 24th, when she came up to London for a scan, stayed the night at Downing Street, and then returned to Chequers on the 25th, only to come back again to London on the 28th. 
  • The prime minister, Downing Street admitted last week, commuted back and forth between Downing Street and Chequers, from 20 March until 26 March. The following day, 27 March, Boris Johnson went into isolation, having contracted the coronavirus himself. Mrs Johnson announced a few days later that she was self-isolating, having also caught the virus.
  • At least one member of the Chequers staff got Covid during the Johnsons’ stay in March 2020; and then Chequers closed on 28 March, owing, according to Downing Street, to staff hesitancy to come into work. 

The Westminster press pack has, more or less, followed up on the story, but they haven’t really gone after it, and you have to wonder why? For one thing, it’s a bit complicated – it’s not like partying on the eve of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. It’s also a couple of years ago now; and memories fade. I also reckon it’s no good being holier than thou: I’m sure I’m not the only one who, at some point or another, stretched, bent or broke the rules in the last couple of years and thinks: well how would my behaviour stand up to this kind of scrutiny? And it’s surely right to feel some sympathy for Mrs Johnson, who was heavily pregnant at a time when her husband was understandably absent, trying to deal with a once-in-a-century pandemic. Perhaps for all those reasons, the press and politicians have continued to focus on the parties at Downing Street but not Mr and Mrs Johnson’s commuting back and forth to Chequers.

But at Tortoise we have kept after it, because we think it matters. And here’s why. 

  • This is not about staffers, it is about the prime minister and his wife. 
  • This is about trust. What they did was hypocritical. And then to cover for them, what Downing Street has done is dishonest. A government official lied about their use of Chequers at this time when we first put it to them in June 2020: in recent months, they have been evasive, refusing to answer the questions; and then the answers they have since given are, at best, partial – certainly a long way from truthful. For example, Mrs Johnson’s spokeswoman said that she went to Chequers because she was pregnant, therefore in a vulnerable category, and needed to self-isolate; but, as I said at the start, there’s no one in the Downing Street flat; there are staff in Chequers, not to mention people who drive you there and back. And I suppose there’s an easy explanation for all of this, an explanation that really is available to the Johnsons. They went to Chequers because they thought that she’d be better taken care of. They just refuse to be direct about it.
  • And as well as being about the Johnsons, as well as being about trust, it’s also about double standards. Downing Street insists that Mr Johnson didn’t break any lockdown rules. That’s because, according to them, they only came into force when the legislation itself became legally binding, i.e. from 1pm on 26 March. (I should just say, to be fair, to the Downing Street press officers, when they tell you this they don’t exactly have a straight face in saying it.) But the point is that Neil Ferguson, Matt Hancock, Allegra Stratton, none of them resigned because they broke the law; it seems Downing Street seems to be saying we should hold the prime minister to a lower standard.

And here, I suppose, is the point: Boris Johnson’s character has become the character of government. His evasiveness and dissembling have required Downing Street, the Chequers Trust, the Thames Valley Police and, with every media interview, more members of his party and his cabinet to be evasive and dissembling themselves. 

It gets harder to believe that policy is being driven by anything other than Boris Johnson’s personal political considerations. Not, to use his corny phrase, the “people’s priorities”; but one person’s predicament. It only corrodes further confidence in government, politics and – I hope you don’t think this is a stretch – democracy. 

At Tortoise, we think that journalism can be different. We take our time, even if it means sticking with an investigation for more than a year. If you joined us on Wednesday at our open news ThinkIn, you’ll know we’re open too – in this story, as in others, we’ve had leads that have come from members who’ve helped us get to a better understanding of what’s really happening. And we were founded with a sense of radical optimism. At the end of this week, you can’t help but thinking that getting to the truth is, these days, both radical and optimistic.