'Is this for real?' No escape for No 10 from party claims

Laura Kuenssberg
Political editor
@bbclaurakon Twitter

Image source, PA Media

"Is this for real?"

That might be your reaction to what we know now - that one of Boris Johnson's most senior aides emailed around 100 staff in Downing Street for outdoor drinks in May 2020, during the intense early emergency of lockdown.

Martin Reynolds, the principal private secretary (for how much longer?) invited dozens and dozens of staffers to drinks in the garden, socially distanced, but to many people's minds, in contradiction to the very strict and very clear public guidance to the public at the time that banned socialising in any form.

A jog with a friend in the park or a solitary trudge along the same canal path was just about it.

"Is this for real?" was in fact the reaction of one of the staff who was gobsmacked to receive the email, written down in black and white, in a message to another official shared at the time.

Another, shown to the BBC, said: "Um. Why is Martin encouraging a mass gathering in the garden?"

Those exchanges make it pretty clear that there were concerns at the time. Yet the event went ahead, with, I'm told, around 30 people in attendance, a long table set out in the garden for drinks, crisps and sausage rolls with, two eyewitnesses told me, the prime minister and his wife in attendance.

Notwithstanding how many of you might feel reading the details of that event, and the planning that went into it, there are three main reasons why this latest bout of claims about what was happening in Number 10 are deeply troubling for Mr Johnson.

First off, the email, a scoop for our colleagues at ITV, is evidence in black and white of a social event that was planned in advance.

That flies in the face of the prime minister's insistence so far that there were "no parties". Evidence of a planned event is not the same as ad hoc chats or the odd drink after hours outdoors or in the office in a Covid-secure environment - the kind of events some in government think could be justified.

With an official investigation under way by a senior and experienced official with a stringent reputation, that is troublesome.

Second, the prime minister could lose a senior official over what happened, and there has long been speculation about which moderately senior head might roll in the aftermath of the inquiry.

But if, as eyewitnesses have told us, Mr Johnson was there himself, he is personally right at the centre of the mess.

Third, for most of Monday the chatter among MPs and ministers getting back into the parliamentary routine was that the mood had calmed, the Tory anger at No 10's chaos had eased off after a liberal application of mince pies and eggnog.

Disillusionment with Downing Street was still extremely common but the heat, and with it the political pressure, had cooled somewhat.

But now, with this new damaging fodder for the opposition, don't be so sure.