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The Partygate scandal deepened on Tuesday night as police dramatically opened two new investigations into events held in parliament and Conservative Party headquarters during Covid restrictions – but said they would take no further action against Boris Johnson.
Scotland Yard announced that it was reinvestigating a “jingle and mingle” Christmas party held by Shaun Bailey’s London mayoral campaign staff at CCHQ on 14 December 2020, after assessing new video evidence.
Rishi Sunak immediately faced fresh calls to block Mr Bailey’s peerage – handed to the failed mayoral candidate by Mr Johnson in his resignation honours – while the police investigation takes place.
The Metropolitan Police also announced an investigation into “potential breaches” of Covid rules at a gathering inside parliament on 8 December the same year, the date of an alleged drinks event attended by Tory grandee Sir Bernard Jenkin for his wife’s birthday.
More than 18 months into the Partygate scandal, the latest move means that questionnaires will be sent out to those who were present at either of the events, asking if they had a “reasonable excuse” to attend a gathering under the Covid laws in place at the time.
But police said that “a number of other events” at Downing Street and the prime minister’s country residence, Chequers, that were believed to involve Mr Johnson in 2020 and 2021, would not be investigated further.
The Cabinet Office came under fire from Mr Johnson after it emerged that it had handed police a dossier of potential rule breaches pulled from the former PM’s diaries. Mr Johnson’s office previously said that his lawyers had written to police to “explain in detail” why the Cabinet Office was “entirely wrong in its assertions”.
The Met’s decision to investigate will inflame already heightened tensions within the Conservative Party. Just last week, Zac Goldsmith, a key Johnson ally, quit the government with an attack on the PM.
A government source told The Independent that the decision to look into the events was an “operational matter for the police”.
The Met said its own officers and their Thames Valley colleagues had assessed official diary entries passed to them by the Cabinet Office. Scotland Yard said that the two forces had looked into events in their respective areas, and that each had concluded “that they do not meet the retrospective criteria for opening an investigation”.
Boris Johnson had claimed that the Cabinet Office was ‘entirely wrong’ to hand over the dossier
However, Scotland Yard revealed that it would open a new inquiry into a “birthday drinks” event held for Sir Bernard’s wife Anne Jenkin on 8 December 2020 – a gathering held in the Westminster office of deputy Commons speaker Dame Eleanor Laing.
Sir Bernard – a member of the privileges committee, which investigated Mr Johnson over Partygate – is reported to have attended the drinks gathering to mark the 65th birthday of Lady Jenkin, a Conservative peer, at a time when London was under strict tier 2 measures that banned socialising indoors.
Mr Johnson previously demanded Mr Jenkin’s resignation from the privileges committee after the Guido Fawkes website first revealed details of the drinks reception, accusing him of “rank hypocrisy”.
Dame Eleanor initially confirmed that the event had taken place, but claimed she had used a two-metre ruler to ensure social distancing so that “nobody who was working here was put at risk”.
Senior Tory MP Sir Bernard Jenkin is reported to have attended the drinks event
Sir Bernard told Guido Fawkes that he “did not attend any drinks parties during lockdown”. When pressed on whether he was denying drinking at the event, Mr Jenkin said: “I don’t recall.” Responding on Tuesday night, Sir Bernard said: “It is not appropriate to comment on a continuing investigation.”
Lady Jenkin and Dame Eleanor did not respond to questions about the event. A WhatsApp message reportedly sent by Lady Jenkin described the event as “joint birthday drinks” that would be “socially distanced” to mark her own birthday and the 54th birthday of Tory MP Virginia Crosbie.
Ms Crosbie apologised last week for “briefly” attending the gathering, but insisted that she did not drink. “I apologise unreservedly for a momentary error of judgment in attending the event,” she said in a statement.
Police detectives had originally decided not to issue any fines in relation to the CCHQ party on 14 December, after an investigation that was based solely on photos and questionnaires. But a video that later emerged, which showed staff drinking, dancing and joking about Covid rules, sparked a rethink.
An invitation obtained by the BBC read: “Jingle and Mingle: Save the date – Monday December 14th at 6pm for the Shaun Bailey for London holiday party.”
Footage of the ‘jingle and mingle’ Christmas party sparked a rethink of the Met’s decision not to investigate
The failed mayoral candidate has previously apologised for the event. The Liberal Democrats again called on Mr Sunak to block Mr Bailey from taking his seat in the Lords while the Christmas party is under investigation – and strip him of his peerage if he is fined by police.
“Rishi Sunak needs to confirm he will call for honours to be stripped from anyone found to have broken the law,” said Daisy Cooper, the Lib Dems’ deputy leader, on Tuesday night.
CCHQ said “formal disciplinary action” was taken against four staff members seconded to Mr Bailey’s London mayoral campaign over the “unauthorised” event. Tory aide Ben Mallett, who was awarded an OBE in Mr Johnson’s resignation honours, is also visible in the footage.
The force said it could revisit assessments of No 10 and Chequers events if significant evidence comes to light. It added: “The approach to the assessment of these events has been consistent, enforcing the law carefully, thoroughly, proportionately, impartially and without fear or favour.”
For a full investigation to be launched, police said they require “evidence of a serious and flagrant breach” of the Covid laws, and that the concerns relate to people who “knew or ought to have known what they were doing was an offence”.
The Met’s previous Partygate investigation saw 83 people, including the former prime minister and Mr Sunak, given a total of 126 fines.