Simon Case Quits Xmas ‘Partygate' Probe Amid Reports Of Lockdown Rules Breach at His Own Office
05:44 GMT 18.12.2021 (Updated: 05:57 GMT 18.12.2021)
Amid a barrage of allegations that have turned the heat up on UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case had been due to report on claims that COVID-19 lockdown rules had been violated at a number of staff events at Number 10 Downing Street and the Department For Education in November and December, 2020.
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case has stepped down as head of the Whitehall inquiry into last year’s allegedly illicit lockdown parties for staff at 10 Downing Street and the Department For Education after reports surfaced of a similar event held in his own office.
"To ensure the ongoing investigation retains public confidence, the cabinet secretary [Simon Case] has recused himself for the remainder of the process," said a No 10 spokesperson.
According to Downing Street, the probe would be concluded by senior civil servant Sue Gray - second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities - who would "ascertain the facts and present her findings to the prime minister".
‘Partygate’ Gathers Steam
The UK's top civil servant was spotted at a gathering with a team of his officials on 17 December 2020 in room 103 of the Cabinet Office, the Guido Fawkes website first reported on Friday. The event had purportedly been listed in digital calendar invitations as “Christmas party!”
Held at a time when household mixing was banned in London under restrictions set in place to curb the spread of the pandemic, the reported event had been planned and organised in advance by staff in Simon Case’s Private Office.
“At least 15 people including his actual office people in the room” are alleged to have been in attendance at the party that involved music and alcoholic drinks. While there were no claims that Simon case himself had actively participated in the gathering, the civil servant is described as having looked into the room on occasion to call out staff for conversations.
© AFP 2022 / JUSTIN TALLISBritain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes a speech as he visits a UK Food and Drinks market set up in Downing Street, central London on November 30, 2021. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / POOL / AFP)
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes a speech as he visits a UK Food and Drinks market set up in Downing Street, central London on November 30, 2021. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / POOL / AFP)
A second event claimed to have been held last December involved staff indulging in drinks in Case’s office before heading on elsewhere for further entertainment. Both reported gatherings took place just days before the 18 December Downing Street Christmas party first reported by The Mirror and now probed by Whitehall.
After reports surfaced on Friday, the Cabinet Office confirmed that a virtual quiz had been held on 17 December 2020 for members of Simon Case's private office. The event involved six people who had been on a rota to attend the office as well as around six people taking part virtually, from home.
"Staff in the cabinet secretary's private office took part in a virtual quiz on 17 December 2020. A small number of them, who had been working in the office throughout the pandemic and on duty that day, took part from their desks, while the rest of the team were virtual,” a Cabinet Office spokesperson was cited by Sky News as saying.
It was emphasised that Simon Case, who walked through the office in question to reach his own personal office, was aware of the event. The official is subsequently described as having emerged to thank staff in an address that lasted five to ten minutes.
"The cabinet secretary played no part in the event… No outside guests or other staff were invited or present. This lasted for an hour and drinks and snacks were bought by those attending. He also spoke briefly to staff in the office before leaving," added the spokesperson.
A day before the reported events, London went into Tier 3 COVID-19 restrictions. This required all pubs and restaurants to close, while households were banned from mixing indoors.
9 December 2021, 05:42 GMT
The fresh reports pile ever more pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who himself was recently accused of breaking the Tier 2 rules in mid-December 2020 by hosting a staff quiz at No 10.
Another report claimed that Johnson joined a group of about 20 civil servants and advisers for celebratory drinks on 15 May last year inside No 10 Downing Street and its garden during the first COVID-19 lockdown. The Prime Minister has maintained that he broke no rules and guidelines were observed at all times.
These revelations come in the wake of a plethora of reports of festive staff gatherings in violation of lockdown rules at Number 10 Downing Street and the Department For Education in November and December, 2020. After ITV News released a video showing some of Johnson’s senior advisers laughing about a party which allegedly took place on 18 December 2020, while London was under Tier 3 restrictions, the PM confirmed that an investigation would be carried out into into what has been dubbed the “partygate” scandal.
15 December 2021, 05:48 GMT
After Simon Case recused himself, Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner called for the Whitehall investigation led by Gray to be completed "very swiftly to restore the public's trust."
She insisted that the accumulated evidence be handed over to the police. "Boris Johnson has set the tone for his government and he lives by one rule for him and another rule for everyone else. People can see through that now and it's incredibly hard to believe that no one in government knew that these parties were happening," said Rayner.
Earlier, Scotland Yard acknowledged that it was maintaining contact with the Cabinet Office throughout the probe into the allegedly illicit staff gatherings in 2020. It was added that should any evidence emerge of “behaviour that is potentially a criminal offence” it would be further considered.