New: Harrogate MP's toughest comments yet on Boris Johnson and Downing Street 'parties' during Covid

Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones has issued his strongest comments yet on Number 10's 'lockdown party' crisis saying that he thought "most people would question how anyone could think this gathering had been within the rules."

By Graham Chalmers
Tuesday, 18th January 2022, 5:09 pm
Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones has issued his strongest comments yet on Number 10's 'lockdown party' crisis.
Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones has issued his strongest comments yet on Number 10's 'lockdown party' crisis.

Speaking about the disputed garden party at Downing Street on 20 May 20, 2020 which Prime Minister Boris Johnson now admits attending but claims he thought it was a work event, Mr Jones said: "On the 20 May 20, 2020 gathering, the statement from the Prime Minister is clear.

"He attended the event with 30 or so members of staff. He believes that since 10 Downing Street is a workplace that this was a work meeting and he attended for 25 minutes to thank staff for their work during the pandemic.

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"His apology was necessary and welcome, but I do not think this closes the matter.

"There are many more questions, some as a consequence of his statement.

"In any case I think most people would question how anyone could think this gathering had been within the rules."

While not going as far as Harrogate and Knaresborough Liberal Democrats vice-chair Matt Walker who wrote to Mr Jones urging him to join the calls for the Prime Minister's resignation, Harrogate's Conservative MP told the Harrogate Advertiser, in his view, any government department which pretended it was a work meeting "must have known that they were deluding themselves."

Mr Jones said: "It seems that in various government departments some sought to pretend that a work meeting was happening so that they could tell themselves that what they were doing was within the rules.

"They must have known that they were deluding themselves.

"I think most people would question how anyone could think this gathering in the Downing Street garden in May 2020 had been within the rules."

When it comes to the standards of behaviour and the application of rules on behaviour in Government, Mr Jones has broken with his Prime Minister in public twice before in the case of political advisor Dominic Cummings and Owen Patterson MP.

While supporting leading civil servant Sue Gray's Cabinet Office inquiry into allegations of parties held inside Downing Street during Covid restrictions, Mr Jones' patience - like some other backbench MPs in the Tory Party - appears to be wearing thin on the issue, partly because he has always been consistently on the cautious side from the very beginning as regards the Covid pandemic,

Mr Jones said: "I take the maxim ‘lawmakers can’t be law breakers’ seriously. I have followed coronavirus restrictions.

"Like most I could not see my family, I could not meet with colleagues and I most certainly could not socialise with friends.

"For me there are two issues about parties – the allegations made before Christmas is the first and the second is the most recent claims about a party attended by the Prime Minister on May 20, 2020 – the infamous ‘bring your own booze’ event.

"I can see why there needs to be an investigation into allegations about gatherings and parties that occurred in the senior reaches of government and I think it is reasonable to await the outcome of that.

"Given the urgency required, I want to see swifter progress."

When it was first announced by the Prime Minister, the inquiry was tasked with establishing the facts on alleged gatherings inside Downing Street on November 27 and December 18 2020, as well as one at the Department for Education on December 10.

But as the allegations of other parties at Downing Street during lockdown have poured in, the inquiry's remit has been expanding almost daily.

The Prime Minister has already apologised to people for what he said were "misjudgements" but, he added, he would not have gone ahead with the event, to which 100 people were invited on 20 May 20, 2020 if he thought it broke the rules.

But his case has not been helped in recent days by new claims by Dominic Cummings, his former chief adviser, who said the Prime Minister did know in advance about the Downing Street drinks party in May 2020 during the first Covid lockdown and agreed that it could go ahead, something denied by Boris Johnson.

Whatever happens, whatever its conclusions, the forthcoming inquiry report could prove hugely damaging for Boris Johnson.

Unlike Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, Mr Jones is not calling for the Prime Minister to stand down.

So far, only a handful of Government MPs have come out clearly in public for Mr Johnson's resignation.

Neither is Mr Jones predicting or speculating on the potential downfall of the Prime Minister after just over two years in office.

But the Harrogate and Knaresborough MP now sounds like someone who believes the wriggle room for Boris Johnson in this particular political controversy is disappearing fast to almost beyond the bounds of possibility.

Mr Jones said: "I recognise that there is a huge chasm between minor and inadvertent infringements at Christmas and a party among those whom we want and expect to take a lead, where an example must be shown.

“That is why the investigation and a final statement from Number 10 are needed. As with the Cummings affair and the standards issue, I will not offer my support if that statement points to wrongdoing.”

"There is no blank cheque from me to Boris Johnson or anyone else.

"I treat the allegations, appearance and admissions of wrongdoing seriously and I am in no way sympathetic to fancy words or formulae that allow anyone to pretend that one event was something it wasn’t."

Away from Westminster, last week saw Matt Walker, the Liberal Democrats in Harrogate and Knaresborough's vice chair, write to Mr Jones urging him to join demands for Boris Johnson’s resignation.

Matt Walker wrote: "We heard an evasive apology from the Prime Minister for hosting a garden party at the height of lockdown.

"This is just one of many recent allegations made about Government representatives and officials breaking the rules during the pandemic, but none so clear cut as the occasion on 20th May 2020.

"At that moment the nation remained frightened of the virus. The death toll was climbing. Pubs and many shops were closed.

"But it gets worse than that. Local residents were deprived of precious final moments with family and loved ones and were forced to attend funerals via Zoom.

"How, especially at this moment in the pandemic, the Prime Minister thought it appropriate for a bring your own booze bash in his back garden is totally beyond every reasonable person I know."

For more see this Thursday's print edition of the Harrogate Advertiser for the full version of Andrew Jones MP's latest monthly column.