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Downing Street Parties: Police Investigation

Volume 707: debated on Tuesday 25 January 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to make a statement on the status of the investigation into Downing Street parties following the statement from the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

As the House will be aware, earlier today the Metropolitan Police Commissioner confirmed that the Metropolitan Police Service will be investigating alleged breaches of covid-19 regulations within Government. This is a matter for the police, and the House will understand that I am not in a position to comment on the nature or content of the police investigation. I have previously made it clear from the Dispatch Box that the Government recognise, and I recognise, the public anxiety and indignation that it appears as though the people who have been setting the rules may not have been following the rules. I would like to repeat that sentiment today.

That is why the Prime Minister asked for a Cabinet Office investigation to take place. The terms of reference for that investigation, led by the second permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Sue Gray, have been published and laid in the Library of this House. Those terms made it clear that, as with all internal investigations, if during the course of the work any evidence emerges of behaviour that is potentially a criminal offence, the matter will be referred to the police and the Cabinet Office’s work may be paused.

As the House would expect, there is ongoing contact between the Cabinet Office investigation and the Metropolitan Police Service. However, the Cabinet Office investigation will continue its work. I would urge the House to wait for the findings of that investigation and for the police to conclude their work. That is important to allow the work to take place unimpeded and to protect the rights of all involved. I must emphasise that matters relating to adherence to the law are properly a matter for the police to investigate, and the Cabinet Office will liaise with them as appropriate.

Finally, I can confirm that the findings of the investigation will be provided to this honourable House and made public. The House will understand that there is a limit to what I can say, given that this is an ongoing investigation. I also cannot comment on what is now an ongoing police investigation, and therefore I ask that Members of the House let the investigation run its course and do not pre-empt its conclusions.

Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker.

Well, well, well: all too soon, the Paymaster General and I find ourselves here once again—and once again, rather than dealing with the cost of living crisis and its impact on families, we are talking about scandals in Downing Street. [Interruption.] Conservative Members can chunter from their positions, but they are allowing this to happen.

For two months, Cabinet Ministers have been working hard to make Sue Gray the most famous woman in Britain. In response to every question asked about the poor conduct, bad behaviour and rule-breaking culture that this Government have overseen, the Ministers have repeatedly told us that Sue Gray is the answer. Now there is a police investigation, and the terms of reference for Sue Gray, set by the Prime Minister himself, are clear:

“if…any evidence emerges of behaviour that is potentially a criminal offence, the matter will be referred to the police”.—[Official Report, 9 December 2021; Vol. 705, c. 561.]

So it seems, Mr Speaker, that potential criminality has been found in Downing Street. What a truly damning reflection on our nation’s very highest office.

So I ask the Paymaster General these questions. Given this morning’s announcement, when will the Sue Gray report finally be published? Can the Paymaster General assure the House that the Sue Gray report will be published in full, not just as a summary, and will the accompanying evidence be provided? Can he clarify for the House what Sue Gray and her team will be doing while the police conduct their investigation? Can he tell the House whether the decision to delay the publication of the Sue Gray report was made by the Metropolitan police or the Government? Given this Government’s record on lost phones and missing messages and minutes, can he assure the House that all evidence from the Gray inquiry will be properly held by the Cabinet Office? Can he clarify whether the Chancellor, as a resident of Downing Street, is co-operating fully with the Gray inquiry and the police investigation, and whether he has been interviewed?

Just weeks ago, the Prime Minister told this House, “there was no party”. How does the Paymaster General explain that? I know that across the country, people know enough. They have made up their minds about the Prime Minister. When will his party catch up?

I will agree with the right hon. Lady’s first point. Her first point was “Why are we not talking about the cost of living?” Well, the Prime Minister is working on the cost of living right now, and he is working on Russia-Ukraine. The Prime is doing those jobs, and he is focused on those areas.

As for the right hon. Lady’s second point, I think she forgets that the word “potentially” was used. The reality is that no conclusions can be drawn from the fact that the police are investigating the matter. If the right hon. Lady looks at the statement issued by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, she will see that the commissioner stressed that the fact the Met is investigating does not mean that the result will necessarily be the issuing of fixed penalty notices in every instance and to every person involved; so “potentially” is a key and operative word.

The right hon. Lady wants to jump to conclusions, but she has asked about the details of the investigation, and those are of course matters for the Cabinet Office and for the police. They are not details of which I would be informed. I would not expect to be informed, because the police have independent operational assessment of matters that are before them, and they will conduct the matter as they see fit.

When Europe stands on the brink of war and there is a cost of living crisis, can we please have a sense of proportion over the Prime Minister’s being given a piece of cake in his own office by his own staff?

On Burns Day, it is probably appropriate to start with the line:

“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

Gang aft agley”.

Or perhaps it should be a line from that other great Scottish writer, Sir Walter Scott:

“O what a tangled web we weave,

When first we practise to deceive!”

Now that the police are finally involved, I do wonder how much more personal humiliation and indignity the Prime Minister will be prepared to endure. Perhaps more importantly, how much more of this embarrassing circus are his colleagues prepared to tolerate before they act to remove this man from office? This is not going to go away; the wound is not going to heal miraculously by itself. I am sure we all know that there is an awful lot more still to come out.

I ask the Minister: at any time has anyone from the Sue Gray inquiry contacted the Metropolitan police? When did the Cabinet Office first learn about the police investigation? When does he now expect the Sue Gray report to be delivered? Finally, can he assure this House that when it is, it will be delivered in full, will be open and will be completely transparent for every Member of this House to access?

The hon. Gentleman asks me questions about the police investigation. I have no knowledge about that—nor would I expect to, nor should I have knowledge about it. He asks about the publication. I have already indicated that the findings of the investigation will be published.

I accept that the Paymaster General may not be able to answer this question now, but will he assure the House that either he or other Ministers will keep the House posted about whether the Prime Minister will be interviewed by the Metropolitan police—either as a witness or as a potential suspect in this criminal investigation?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question but of course the police will conduct the investigation, as they do in any case, entirely at their own discretion. I would not expect to be informed about that, nor would the House expect me to be.

There have been newspaper reports of Downing Street staff being told to delete evidence of parties from their phones and staff fearing to give evidence to the Sue Gray inquiry for fear that the PM will see it and that there will later be recriminations. Now that there is a police investigation, will the Paymaster General make it clear throughout Whitehall that all evidence must be given to the police? Will he undertake to publish a report and evidence so that we can all see at the end of this affair that that has been done?

If I may say so, I think one can draw a conclusion from the fact that in their liaison with the Metropolitan police, the Cabinet Office has, according to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, satisfied her that an investigation should take place. That should give comfort, to those who might otherwise doubt the investigation, that it is a proper and due-process investigation.

As in all cases where due process should be followed in the interests of fairness, it would not be appropriate to presuppose any result of a police investigation—or, for that matter, of an independent Cabinet Office investigation. As I have already said, I would expect the findings to be published in due course.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree with me that it is a long-standing convention in this House that when there are independent inquiries and investigations, they are allowed to run their course and that prejudgments are not made in this House? Given that that is the case and that it would be advisable for that convention to be carried on, does he also agree that we really need to concentrate on matters that really affect our constituents on a day-to-day basis—cost of living, energy prices and so on—as well as on the fact that 100,000 Russian troops are on the Ukrainian border, which threatens global instability?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the pressing international situation, particularly as regards Ukraine and Russia. I know that the Prime Minister is focused on that matter.

I also understand the anxiety and indignation of many who are frustrated by the reports that have been emanating over the course of many weeks about alleged gatherings in the Downing Street area. The reality of the matter is that the Prime Minister is focused, as he has been focused, on delivering for this country as he has succeeded in delivering vaccines and on the manifesto commitments. He will continue that laser focus.

It is clear that the Government are now in total meltdown. We have story after story about covid laws being broken in No. 10, revelations about hon. Members having constituency funding threatened by Government Whips, and now a Prime Minister and his staff under police investigation. In the midst of a pandemic and a cost of living crisis and with Europe on the brink of war in Ukraine, we cannot go on with this chaotic Government. Does the Minister accept that the Prime Minister’s authority is in tatters? Will he advise his boss to do the right thing in the national interest and resign?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his advice on propriety, but he will forgive me if I decline to follow it.

Does the Minister agree that anyone taking a view on the Prime Minister must take into account the fact that he has presided over the most successful vaccination programme in the world, which is taking us out of the pandemic ahead of most other countries in the world?

My right hon. Friend is right, and we would be in lockdown now were it not for this Prime Minister.

Is the Prime Minister not simply compounding his previous terrible mistakes by continuing to deny culpability, leading to an unnecessary and expensive police inquiry, when he could do the decent thing and resign?

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would expect fairness to apply to all in this country, whether that is to one of his constituents or to one of mine, and I would hope and expect that he would not wish to see unfairness for anyone. What we are doing at the Cabinet Office is co-operating with a police investigation. That will carry on and take its natural course, as police investigations invariably do, in an orderly way, unencumbered by interference from the Executive.

Would the Paymaster General consider the Metropolitan police, or any other police force, looking into the activities of the Leader of the Opposition with his beer party? As far as I can see there is no difference. What does he say to that?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, but, of course, police investigations and how they are conducted are operationally independent. I am sure that they will have heard what he said.

Does the Paymaster General not think that it would be a good idea to set up a police special operations unit room in No. 10 Downing Street, because, while the police are looking at this case, they could perhaps look at cash for honours, cash for access, personal protective equipment for pals, paid advocacy, breaking the ministerial code, and all the other general Tory badness?

I have to say that a quick Google analysis of the SNP would not be particularly edifying. Despite noises off, this Prime Minister is focused on what matters to the British people and it is right that those matters conclude in an orderly way.

I welcome the investigation. We can see the absolute terror on the faces of the Opposition. For them, this is partygate, but they know that they are up against a Prime Minister and a Government who have brought youth unemployment to its lowest ever level. This Government, led by the Prime Minister, brought us the AstraZeneca vaccine and ensured that we had the most successful booster programme in the world. That is why there is absolute terror on the Opposition Benches that we should focus on policy in this place and on the priorities of the British people. That is why the Opposition are so desperate to land this even as the inquiry is going on.

I agree completely. The Prime Minister also welcomes the announcement by the Met police today, because alongside the Sue Gray inquiry, which he set up, we will offer the public the clarity that they need to help draw a line under these events.

My Middlesbrough constituents have obeyed the rules, done exactly what the Prime Minister demanded of them and abided by the laws that he initiated. Does the Paymaster General not understand that the continued refusal to do the right and decent thing only serves to damage our democracy and tarnish our reputation across the world? That will not be turned around until such time as the Prime Minister goes and brings this shameful business to an end.

Does the Paymaster General agree that compared with being interviewed under caution for flogging peerages, as Tony Blair was, trying to prosecute a former First Minister of Scotland despite being told that there was no evidence or taking money from Chinese spies, eating a piece of birthday cake is a relatively minor offence?

Given that the police investigated and intervened on several parties across London on 20 May, can the Paymaster General explain why they did not intervene when enormous amounts of booze were being trundled into No. 10 with enormous amounts of noise? Does that make him fear some sort of fudging of the investigation? Perhaps another police force should intervene.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman chooses to criticise the Metropolitan police; I do not think that has the support of the House. I ask him to accept that the position is that the Metropolitan police and the public servants who work in Government work hard, including during a period of major crisis for the country, in the public service. They are devoted to their work and they seek to serve the public in the best way they can. Assumptions ought not to be made of police or civil service impropriety. The matter is subject to investigation and I ask him to accept the default position that persons are innocent unless otherwise proved—that is how it works.

Last night, NATO announced that it was putting troops on standby in response to the situation in Ukraine. In April, gas prices are forecast to rise by more than 50% when the energy price cap lifts. People in Redcar and Cleveland want to move on from the debacle on parties and focus on the real issues. Will the Paymaster General assure me that the Cabinet Office will publish Sue Gray’s report as soon as it can?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s position. I would say that the report of Sue Gray—the findings of that report—will be published as soon as they are available.

The right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) invited us to have a sense of proportion in relation to the matter. I refer him to one of the many emails that I have had from constituents and I ask the Paymaster General what he thinks about it. My constituent said that if he had not followed the covid restrictions, like the Prime Minister:

“I would have driven…to Norfolk to see my mum after she broke her leg and had to stay in a nursing home. I would have taken a trip south to prepare her house…I could have helped cook and clean for her while we found suitable local carers. I would have sung happy birthday to her from the hospital grounds while she recovered from covid she caught from a carer. I could have been closer when she died a few days later, 82 and alone in a ward of strangers.”

What should I say to my constituent? Should I tell him to have a sense of proportion or will the Paymaster General apologise to him and all the other people across the United Kingdom who kept the rules when the Prime Minister and his mates did not?

I would invite the hon. and learned Lady to offer her constituent my abject sorrow and condolences for his loss. There is nothing that I can say to bring back that which is lost, but what I can say is that the Prime Minister, in the exercise of his functions over the course of the pandemic, has brought the country out of a dire situation into a situation where we are now leading the world in our arrangements around the pandemic. He will continue to focus on those priorities.

I welcome the Metropolitan police inquiry and express surprise that it was not announced earlier. In the Paymaster General’s previous role as Attorney General, he will have been more familiar than most with the covid-19 regulations and the fixed penalty notices that have been issued. Can he confirm that they are summary offences normally investigated within six months and that the burden of proof is beyond reasonable doubt?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. As he can imagine, I would prefer not to get into the legal position. What I would say is that I expect, as everyone would, the police to conduct their investigation expeditiously and at a time that is, no doubt, in accordance with their own procedures and protocols. He is right to raise the fact that there will be tests—evidence and the burden of proof—and it is always right that a person in this country is innocent unless or until they be proven guilty.

What assessment has been undertaken of the damage that partygate has on our economy and inward investment, and on the trust of the British people in this Government?

The hon. Member asks what assessment has been made. I invite the House to note that this Prime Minister held a Cabinet meeting the day after his own mother died, was working just weeks after he was released from intensive care in hospital and has led the world on AstraZeneca and vaccine availability. We would still be in a lockdown situation if it were not for him. I invite her to accept those points as those that really focus the mind.

Given that there are ongoing investigations by Sue Gray and the Metropolitan police at this time, and we await the results, does my right hon. and learned Friend not agree that this urgent question is a vexatious waste of everybody’s time?

Order. I am sure the hon. Gentleman is not questioning my judgment. I am the person who grants urgent questions. I am sure he would like to withdraw the question; it does not need answering.

One of my constituents, Billie-Jean, got in touch. Billie-Jean was in university accommodation during the pandemic and was fined £100 for having a gathering of 11 people during that time. Billie-Jean says that, while they were being fined and disciplined by the university, the Prime Minister

“was living a lush life of champagne and party nibbles”.

Would the Minister like to apologise to my constituents and everybody else for having done one thing in Downing Street while people in the world outside did quite another?

Her constituent, in order to have been fined, would either have had to admit wrongdoing or have been found guilty in a court of law on the evidence before that court. The situation is completely different. No such state of affairs exists as far as No. 10 or the Prime Minister is concerned.

I fought in bloody conflicts in Europe. At the moment, we are seeing hundreds of thousands of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, and could see the bloodiest conflict for generations. We are wasting time here. [Interruption.] Sorry, Mr Speaker. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that every time the Opposition call for our Prime Minister to resign, it only strengthens Putin’s hand and destabilises negotiations?

My hon. Friend is quite right to focus on what matters around the world and to the Prime Minister of this country.

Every day, in my constituency of Birkenhead, parents are going hungry so that their children can eat, while elderly people are living in freezing homes because they simply cannot afford to put their heating on. Will the Minister concede that the Government are more interested in their own internal turmoil than in helping those most in need? Will he now join the calls for the Prime Minister to step aside so that we can finally begin to get grips with this Tory cost of living crisis?

Last night, the food critic Jay Rayner, quoting the late, great Julia Child, said

“a party without cake is just a meeting. Johnson’s staffers supplied a cake. Ergo, it was a party.”

Does the Paymaster General agree not only with Jay Rayner, but with the late, great Julia Child?

If while at work someone eats cake for 10 minutes, I do not think that conclusions can be drawn from that, so the hon. Member is putting the cart before the horse.

Is it not the case that those on the Opposition Benches are in cahoots with the media to undemocratically depose this Prime Minister not because he is an electoral liability for us, but because he is an electoral liability for them?

One has to wonder. The Labour party’s focus on gatherings two years ago, as alleged, rather than on Ukraine and the Russian troops massing on the border of Europe, is quite extraordinary. What we are doing is focusing on the matters that really make a difference for the people of this country, while the police and the Cabinet Office continue their investigations.

Given that it has taken six weeks since the Daily Mirror first broke the story of parties in Downing Street to have a police inquiry, what consideration have the Government given to appointing Pippa Crerar as the commissioner of the Metropolitan police?

Over the last few days, I have been out and about with my constituents in Great Grimsby, and they are sick and tired of listening to this constant thread. They are very happy that essential workers have gathered together for two years to get us through the pandemic. Will my right hon. and learned Friend send a message to the Prime Minister that they support his policies and want him to carry on getting on with the job?

I will gladly send the Prime Minister that message. In fact, my hon. Friend’s message is very similar to those that the Prime Minister is hearing from colleagues around the House, and that is the focus that matters.

Does the Minister really think that it is in the interests of our country—our country, not the Prime Minister—that the Prime Minister remains at the helm, giving public health advice to the people of Newcastle and security reassurances to the people of Ukraine, while mired in scandal and facing criminal investigations?

I do, passionately. I think that the Prime Minister is the best leader for this country, and he would bring to shame any leader that the Labour party might put forward for this country. The Prime Minister knows what matters and focuses on the matters that are important to the British people. This investigation is also important, but it is being conducted by the Cabinet Office and the Metropolitan police. We recognise the upset that has been caused by these allegations, which are being properly investigated.

I know that I myself, colleagues and constituents were shocked by the alleged lockdown rule breaking by none other than the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). Does the Minister agree that there can be no hypocrisy and that all sides need to be investigated—after all, those in glass houses should not throw beer bottles?

Order. I am sure that “hypocrisy” was not aimed at an individual Member—surely not. I think that was badly phrased and I will let it go.

Nothing in the law forbade people who were legitimately at work from having a 10-minute coffee break in between meetings, and I am sure that people across the country did that, whether they ate cake with it or not. The reality of the matter is that my hon. Friend’s point is completely accurate.

The Home Affairs Committee has been looking into the consistency of enforcement of covid regulations, because we are well aware that failure to enforce consistently can erode public trust. The Committee will have an opportunity to question the Metropolitan Police Commissioner soon. However, as the police have primary responsibility for criminal investigations in this country, does the Minister think that it would have been much better to pass this on to the Metropolitan police as soon as these allegations came to light, and that we would now be concluding that Metropolitan police investigation and he would have to stop coming to this House to defend the Prime Minister?

I know that the right hon. Lady is a very fair Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, and she will acknowledge that the police have their job to do. It is not a matter for the Government or the Executive to refer matters. That has been done by the Cabinet Office, independently, as part of its investigation. As to the length of the police investigation, we have no idea how long it will be.

It is clearly correct that the police should investigate any suspicions of breaches of the law, regardless of who may be involved. Can my right hon. and learned Friend assure this House and the country that Sue Gray is being left to conduct her investigation independently and freely, and that there are no barriers to her passing on to the police any relevant information she may find on any potential rule breaking?

Yes, I can confirm that. The fact the Cabinet Office has passed matters to the Metropolitan police is proved by today’s news.

Will the Minister explain to his less quick-witted colleagues that the claimed good works on covid are no excuse for breaking the law?

It is absolutely right for there to be a full investigation into these matters, just as it was right for the police to investigate the cash for honours scandal under the Blair Government. Can my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that the police will, of course, be given full co-operation on these matters, just as the Cabinet Office investigation has been?

I can assure my hon. Friend that full co-operation will be accorded to the police as and if they ask for it.

It is quite clear that, even after this, the Prime Minister does not want to leave No. 10 Downing Street, but do we not face the possibility that the UK’s PM might eventually be leaving No. 10 Downing Street in police handcuffs?

On 8 December the Prime Minister told this House “there was no party”. Paragraph 1.3 of the “Ministerial Code” says that anyone who knowingly misleads the House will be expected to resign, so why is the Prime Minister still in his job?

If a group of people take cake for 10 minutes while at work, everyone is permitted a reasonable break as part of their working day. That is one possible interpretation. Ten minutes of eating cake and wishing someone a happy birthday would not a party make, but it is a matter for police investigation, and that is what is now happening.

I thank the Paymaster General for his responses to these questions. It seems like there are new reports of suspected lockdown breaches each day now. I am pleased, however, that the Metropolitan police’s investigation is under way. Will he confirm that any and all findings from these investigations will be disclosed to the media for public reassurance, that this will be the case for all reports of potential breaches that may yet come before Sue Gray’s investigation is concluded and that justice will be done?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the findings of Sue Gray’s report will be put before this House.

Once again, the Paymaster General has been forced to come to the Dispatch Box to defend the indefensible, and no one is buying it. Honesty, transparency and leadership should be at the heart of this country’s Government, but they are severely lacking. Will the Prime Minister now come to this House to set the record straight and tell us exactly what gatherings and parties he attended at Downing Street? Or better yet, will he just resign?

I know the hon. Lady wishes to make a political point, and it is kind of her to focus on my comfort, but I am not forced to do anything. I am here because I know the Prime Minister is entitled to the same justice as anyone else. It is unedifying to see the Opposition making party political points over this matter. The focus of this Government is on the primary concerns of the cost of living, employment, the economy and the situation in Ukraine and Russia, while the police and the Cabinet Office conclude their investigations.

The police were asked to enforce covid rules across the country and faced difficult challenges in doing so to keep us all safe, issuing tens of thousands of fines to people who broke the rules—even those gathering for birthdays. Does the Minister believe that the Prime Minister is above the law? My constituents are asking why these events took place, disregarding the rules. I say to Conservative Members who have attacked this business that these matters do concern our constituents—they do.

The Paymaster General does not want to speak about the specifics of the investigation. So, for all the dodgy coronavirus contracts, the cash for honours for the Tories, the stated intention to break international law, illegally proroguing Parliament and the many other crimes and misdemeanours of this Government, does he find it a tad ironic that it is the parties in which they demonstrated their contempt for the public that finally prompted the police to investigate?

I remind the Minister that it started with a joke about a fictional party during a dummy press conference. Then there was the faux outrage from the Prime Minister, who was angry about that joke. All the while, there were parties—lots of them—and he was at some of them. There is a mountain of evidence of truth twisting, rule bending and lawbreaking, and it lands at the feet of the man at the top. Why is the Minister still defending the indefensible?

I see that the hon. Gentleman wishes to be judge, jury and executioner, but no one in this House would give him that position. What matters is justice—justice for all—and that will apply in this case as it does in any other.