Garden party hangover might explain why Boris Johnson didn’t sack Dominic Cummings straight away

One of the greatest mysteries of Boris Johnson’s premiership is why he failed to sack Dominic Cummings in the immediate aftermath of his lockdown visit to Barnard Castle.

Backbench MPs screamed out for pragmatism and ruthlessness from their leader, but he stubbornly refused to sack his adviser, allowing the wound to fester for another six months.

Now those same Tories believe an answer might have finally presented itself.

The “bring your own booze” Number 10 garden party, which the Prime Minister has not denied attending, took place just two days before Mr Cummings’s trip to Barnard Castle was exposed.

Is this the reason Mr Johnson was gripped by paralysis when his own supporters demanded he wield the axe?

“It’s difficult to avoid that conclusion,” one senior Tory MP said. “A lot of us said at the time that it was an absolutely extraordinary decision to allow Cummings to stay on. It was just plain weird.

“The way he handled it, the way the two things are so tightly juxtaposed, I think it’s absolutely correct to ask whether they are directly linked.”

The long road out of lockdown

The month of May 2020 had already been a bad month for the Prime Minister even before the Barnard Castle crisis, and some MPs now believe other unpopular decisions Mr Johnson took that month in relation to the pandemic response may have been influenced by what was secretly going on in Downing Street.

“If you piece together what happened, and when it happened, it’s entirely possible that people’s knowledge that they had broken the rules affected the decisions they were making at that time,” said one influential Tory MP.

By the beginning of May, the country had been in lockdown for five weeks, and the Prime Minister, under huge pressure from his own MPs, promised he was working on a “roadmap” out of the restrictions, while insisting he would not risk the hard-won gains of the nation’s “effort and sacrifice”.

Yet Britain was already falling behind other European nations, which on May 4 started lifting restrictions which, in many cases, had been imposed before Britain went into lockdown on March 23.

Denmark and Italy were among the countries that allowed grandparents to hug their grandchildren again by relaxing household isolation rules, while Portugal allowed hairdressers and other small businesses to reopen.

Timeline of key events in May 2020

All that the UK could offer the nation at that time was the NHS Test and Trace app, later to become the hated cause of the “pingdemic”, which launched on May 5. (That was incidentally the same day that “Professor Lockdown”, Neil Ferguson, quit his role on Sage after The Telegraph exposed his visits to his mistress’s house in contravention of lockdown rules.)

It took until May 13 for phase one of the so-called “three steps” to kick in: garden centres and golf courses were allowed to reopen, workers were encouraged to head back to the office and people were allowed outdoor meetings with friends and relatives as long as they stayed two metres apart, with only one person from another household allowed.

Despite the clamour for a more widespread easing of restrictions, Mr Johnson said “this is not the time simply to end the lockdown this week”, adding that it would be “madness now to throw away that achievement by risking a second spike”.

To hammer home the point, he increased fines for breaching lockdown rules from £60 to £100, with a maximum penalty of £3,200 for serial offenders.

Amid widespread confusion at the new rules, Mr Johnson told Parliament: “I know that the British public will continue to help the police, and everybody, to enforce the rules… by continuing to apply good, solid British common sense.”

That ill-defined standard was interpreted differently within the walls of Number 10 compared with the rest of the country.

“There was a view that people in Number 10 were key workers,” said one former staff member. “A view that they were very important, they were taking a lot more risk in terms of their own health and the health of their families.” 

In other words, that they were a special case.

Hunkering down… and living it up?

Another factor at play was the fact that while Number 10 staff had continued to turn up for work throughout lockdown, other government departments and almost the entirety of the civil service were working from home, even after the return to work guidance. It created a bunker mentality in Downing Street, insiders say, that fed into the decision to have a staff drinks party on May 20.

Martin Reynolds, the Prime Minister’s principal private secretary, referenced the “incredibly busy period” staff had worked through as he invited 100 of them to “socially distanced drinks” in the Number 10 garden that day.

At the same time, Downing Street was party to information that had not yet entered the public domain.

As the following day’s Telegraph would report, six major London hospitals had recorded no Covid deaths in the previous 48 hours, suggesting that the pandemic was in full retreat in the capital.

Days earlier, on May 14, The Telegraph had revealed that Covid cases in London were down to just 24 per day (in contrast, they are currently averaging 21,603 per day). It was in the evening of that day that the Prime Minister, his fiancee Carrie, and about 17 staff were photographed in the Downing Street garden with wine and cheese, which was reported last year.

On the day of the May 20 drinks party, large crowds had gathered on beaches around the UK to enjoy the hot weather. To them, it might have been “solid British common sense” to do so. But their behaviour was frowned upon by Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary at the time, at a press conference just 55 minutes before the No 10 staff pulled the corks on their wine.

Mr Dowden told the public to “limit contact with other people” and said: “You can meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor, public place – provided that you stay two metres apart. Staying alert for the vast majority of people still means staying at home as much as possible.”

The Metropolitan Police had also, helpfully, reminded the public via Twitter that day that “you can relax, have a picnic, exercise or play sport, as long as you are: on your own, with people you live with, just you and one other person”.

Another press conference took place on May 21, the day after the drinks party, when Matt Hancock, the health secretary at the time, was asked about the possibility of garden parties to celebrate the Islamic festival of Eid. 

He said: “The clear answer for all faiths is people will have to adapt the celebrations around the current social distancing rules, and everybody knows what those rules are and they remain the same for every community.”

Mayhem ensues – and leaves lasting impact

Dominic Cummings delivering his speech explaining the Barnard Castle trip on May 25 – five days after the ‘bring your own booze’ party was said to have taken place

Credit: Jonathan Brady/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Then, on May 22, Mr Johnson learned of a bombshell heading his way, as his staff informed him that The Mirror and The Guardian newspapers were about to publish details of the trip made to Barnard Castle by Mr Cummings on April 12.

The story appeared on the following day’s front pages – Saturday, May 23 – but it took until May 25 for Mr Cummings to face the music in the form of his memorable televised press conference, coincidentally held in the Downing Street garden.

Tory MPs were raging. More than 60 called for Mr Cummings’s dismissal, including such major names as Sajid Javid, the former chancellor and now Health Secretary.

Yet it took until November for Mr Cummings to be ousted from Number 10. Even supporters of Mr Johnson had believed all along that Mr Cummings’s departure had become inevitable after the Barnard Castle revelations undermined government policy; they were baffled by why it had taken so long.

We now know that Mr Johnson was in a position of weakness because of the party that took place on his own lawn days before.

Mr Cummings was not prepared to resign, and Mr Johnson must surely have known him well enough to worry that he would exact his revenge if he was turned into a fall guy.

Just as he feared, when he and Mr Cummings eventually did part company, his closest adviser became his most dangerous opponent, drip-feeding the nation a never-ending stream of damaging disclosures and mocking his former boss as “the shopping trolley”.

It was Mr Cummings who first revealed the May 20 drinks party had taken place, and while he might not have guessed how it would play out, it is Mr Cummings who could yet be granted his wish to bring down the man he claims is “unfit for the job”.

Additional reporting by Harry Yorke

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