A health minister has admitted the public will be “upset and angry” at revelations that a senior official invited more than 100 Downing Street staff to a “bring your own booze” party during the first lockdown.
In a tacit acknowledgment of the strength of feeling at the latest revelations, Ed Argar said he had personally not attended any parties and had been aware of the regulations, “not least because I was a health minister who’d helped draw them up”.
It came as the former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson called for an immediate explanation from Boris Johnson, after No 10 and ministers said any comment must wait for the conclusion of civil servant Sue Gray’s investigation into Downing Street lockdown breaches.
“This line won’t survive 48 hrs. Nobody needs an official to tell them if they were at a boozy shindig in their own garden. People are (rightly) furious. They sacrificed so much – visiting sick or grieving relatives, funerals. What tf were any of these people thinking?” Davidson tweeted.
Labour’s shadow climate change secretary, Ed Miliband, said it was the most serious allegation to date. “The reason this is so damning is because it was an organised party, no ifs and no buts, because it was clearly the most flagrant violation of the rules,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“The prime minister cannot run and he cannot hide. He’s got to answer. If I went to a party, I know I went to the party. He’s got to explain – was he at the party? How can he possibly justify all of the things he said in the House of Commons – that no rules were broken, that he did nothing wrong? He is going to have to answer.”
Argar told Sky News that he understood public anger after the email from senior official Martin Reynolds inviting staff to enjoy drinks in the garden was unearthed by ITN. The Met police have said they will make inquiries.
About 30 to 40 people are said to have attended, with food and wine set out on tables, but some staff reportedly expressed reservations at the time.
On the same day, Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, had reminded the public at a press conference: “You can meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor, public place provided that you stay 2 metres apart.”
Argar told Sky News: “I can understand that with these allegations people will be upset and angry, which is why it’s right that the prime minister asked for that independent investigation to be completed at pace, to get to the facts behind these allegations. What actually happened or didn’t happen in Downing Street is a matter for Ms Gray.
“She will come up with her conclusions having interviewed the relevant people, having looked at the evidence and … she will then conclude a) what did or didn’t happen, and then b) whether anything that did happen was consistent with the rules.”
Asked if he would have attended a party himself, Argar said: “I spent my May last year talking to you on various occasions, and various other media outlets, but pretty much glued to my Zoom screen and making sure that I knew what the regulations were – not least because I was a health minister who’d helped draw them up.
“I wasn’t invited to any parties and I’m not going to get into any hypotheticals. … I was clear about what the rules were at the time and it’s right that Sue Gray is looking into this matter independently.”
Argar admitted he might have had a “quiet word” with neighbours holding a party for 40 people. “But I’m not going to extrapolate from that or be drawn on the allegations at the moment.”