That Downing Street Christmas Party – the Law, the Policy, and the Politics
8th December 2021
The Downing Street Christmas party story is a good example of an incident that can be looked at in a legal, a policy and a political way.
From a legal perspective, it may well be that the infamous party last year at 10 Downing Street was not a breach of the law – at least for the organisers.
The experienced criminal barrister and legal commentator Matthew Scott has provided a detailed legal analysis of the situation over at his blog.
For the reasons he gives it looks as if organising the party may not have been a criminal offence – as long as it took place in the non-residential part of the building.
Less clear – oddly – is the position of the party-goers, and the only person who has read and considered every single coronavirus regulation – the barrister Adam Wagner – avers that those who attended the party may still face the possibility of liability.
The organisers may not have been in breach but everyone who attended would have been – if it was a "permitted organised gathering" where there was mingling between households
— Adam Wagner (@AdamWagner1) December 6, 2021
Yes, this is rather counter-intuitive – but the law here was and is a mess.
And when the law is a mess, such counter-intuitive situations will happen.
But as Wagner says elsewhere, there is legal unfairness as well as inconsistency:
I know I mentioned this before but this keeps bringing back the utter distress of my 7 student clients who got £10,000 fixed penalty notices for house parties. Families paying life changing £ they couldn't afford, regulators + student authorities disciplinary processes triggered
— Adam Wagner (@AdamWagner1) December 7, 2021
So, although the metropolitan police are (rightly) considering whether to investigate the Downing Street party as a breach of the law, it looks as if any prosecutions or fines may be unlikely – unless there are admissions.
This is more by luck than judgement, as one suspects nobody in Downing Street knew or cared about the legal position at the time.
They would have partied anyway, as they see legal rules as being for other people.
Now we turn to the non-legal rules that applied at the time.
For even if organising the party was not (technically) illegal, it still may have been in breach of the guidance at the time.
And what was the policy at the time?
Helpfully, here is an official government tweet from the very day before the party, replying to a query:
Hi Mick, although there are exemptions for work purposes, you must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted by the rules in your tier. You can find more information here: https://t.co/OffEeTzYh3 Thanks
— GOV.UK (@GOVUK) December 17, 2020
That tweet in turn links to the guidance of the time.
That guidance expressly provided:
So, even if (unwittingly) the organisation of the party was not a breach of the criminal law at the time, there is no wiggle-room about it being a breach of the applicable guidance.
In essence: even if not a breach of the law, it was a breach of the rules.
But again, one suspects nobody in Downing Street knew or cared about the policy position at the time.
They would have partied anyway, as they see non-legal rules as also being for other people.
When there is a leak, other than when the disclosure is contemporaneous, its timing and content will usually tell you more about the enemies of the subject of the leak than anything else.
Leaks are often a matter of timing – and of perceived vulnerability.
And so somebody somewhere decided this was the right time to disclose to the news the video of the mock press conference.
EXCLUSIVE: Video obtained by ITV News shows Downing Street staff joking about a Christmas party on 18th December last year.
No 10 has spent the past week denying any rules were broken. This new evidence calls that into question. pic.twitter.com/nKYK0tG0dQ
— Paul Brand (@PaulBrandITV) December 7, 2021
The fuller video here should also be watched.
Given internal security at Downing Street, the disclosure of such material indicates that the prime minister has some well-placed and well-connected political enemies.
As to the content of the video, there is nothing wrong with such questions and answers being rehearsed – and there is nothing wrong with it being done with an appropriate sense of humour and with candour about not knowing the answers.
That is how such rehearsals are usually done.
What is telling and discomforting is the general levity not of the spokesperson trying to work out a line-to-take – but the levity of all the other political operatives involved.
It was a huge joke.
There was a realisation that laws and rules had been broken, but they were just to laugh about.
As it happens the mock session was not a rehearsal for an imminent press conference, but (presumably) one of a sequence of sessions in preparation for the the televised press conferences that were then envisaged as commencing the next month.
I'm told by one well-connected Tory that this specific mock press conference was decisive in ensuring they never actually happened https://t.co/tA3ENJQrLA
— George Parker (@GeorgeWParker) December 7, 2021
And so we have a press conference room, at huge expense, which was never to be used:
Amazing to think that Boris Johnson spent £2.6 million on this room for daily televised press briefings and the only clip we'll ever see from them is when his Press Secretary joked about when they all broke the law. pic.twitter.com/g0fdFMZd6y
— Adam Bienkov (@AdamBienkov) December 7, 2021
(And only yesterday this blog was bemoaning the proliferating use of United Kingdom flags for political broadcast purposes.)
There are two obvious broad political consequences of this situation.
First, the currency of official denials is now not so much devalued, but worthless:
Cover-ups and credibility: Johnson’s denials no longer carry much weight https://t.co/1oe1gU8gVV
— Rowena Mason (@rowenamason) December 7, 2021
And second, there will now be no perceived legitimacy whatsoever in the government direction and guidance on public health generally and coronavirus in particular.
Politics – in a democracy – is about words, authority, and power.
And this government could not have done more to compromise its political position.
Law, Policy and Politics combined
All this has happened at perhaps the worst moment – for the government and for the rest of us.
A new variant coronavirus may require the government to use law, policy and political leadership as means to address the new public health problem.
But the government – by this and other unforced errors – has undermined its ability to do this.
The Downing Street Christmas party story may be a good example of an incident that can be looked at in a legal, a policy and a political way.
But it also can be seen as a good example of everything the government should have avoided.
And the ultimate problem – that of a complete failure of political leadership – cannot be blamed on others:
I think we're a bit beyond the "good Tsar, naughty advisors" defence here lads. https://t.co/G5ddVDmIMW
— Dan Snow (@thehistoryguy) December 7, 2021
“Hello Nemesis? You say Hubris invited you? Go straight in and get some wine and cheese.”
This daily law and policy blog needs your help to continue for another year – for the benefit of you and other readers.
Each free-to-read post takes time and opportunity cost.
This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters.
If you value this free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary – both for the you and for the benefit of others – please do support through the Paypal box above, or become a Patreon subscriber.
You can also have each post sent by email by filling in the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).
This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.
Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.
Comments will not be published if irksome.