Explainer: Boris Johnson, Partygate and the importance of cheese and wine

Boris Johnson Partygate Featured Image

The term ‘Partygate’ has been ever-present in the UK political dialogue over the past year, but what is it and why is it important?

Simply put – Partygate refers to the political scandal over a series of gatherings (or parties) that were held by government staff during the COVID-19 lockdown between 2020-2021.

The highest level of government meetings did not have to follow the same COVID restrictions as public gatherings (e.g. funerals, weddings). As early as November 2021, however, reports emerged that Downing Street staff had breached COVID regulations during the lockdowns.

Boris Johnson repeatedly denied the accusations until further reports surfaced in January 2022 that showed he had attended the Downing Street garden party in May 2020. Johnson apologised but stressed that it had been a work event and therefore had “technically” broken no rules.

Around the same time, Johnson found himself as part of the Metropolitan Police and Cabinet Office inquiries.

The Met investigation concluded on April 12, resulting in the issue of 126 fixed penalty notices to 83 individuals – including Boris Johnson, his wife Carrie, and Rishi Sunak (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) – for breaching COVID regulations.

The Cabinet Office inquiry was delayed after Simon Case was forced to recuse himself from the case after reports revealed that he had a lockdown party in his own office on December 17, 2020.

Civil servant, Sue Gray, took over the inquiry and published a 59-page report in May 2022. It detailed flagrant breaches of the COVID restrictions under the guise of ‘government meetings’. Excess drinking, late-night partying and a toxic culture featured in multiple events during the pandemic.

Why is Boris now facing a Commons Privileges Committee?

Alongside the Cabinet Office and Metropolitan Police inquiries, the UK House of Commons launched its own probe on April 21, 2022.

The Committee of Privileges, a panel appointed by the Commons, was raised to examine whether Boris Johnson had misled MPs in the Commons regarding what he knew about the Downing Street lockdown gatherings.

The investigation focused concerns on whether:

  • The Commons was misled by Boris Johnson
  • If the Commons was misled, whether that constituted a contempt of parliament
  • If the Commons was misled, how serious was the potential contempt

As a parliamentary investigation, separate from the legal process, the Committee investigation will be guided by parliamentary rules and conventions.

On March 3, 2023, the Committee published its summary of issues to be raised with Johnson. This included at least four occasions on which the Commons may have been misled about COVID breaches that would have been obvious to the former Prime Minister.

Ahead of his hearing, Johnson published his 52-page defence on March 21. His defence acknowledged that his statements to Parliament were misleading but suggested it was “illogical” to believe efforts had been made to cover up lockdown parties.

Johnson also stated it remained “unclear” as to why he was fined for breaching lockdown laws at an event on June 19, 2020. The former PM asserted: “No cake was eaten, and no one even sang happy birthday. The primary topic of conversation was the response to Covid-19.”

On March 22, Boris Johnson will defend himself in front of the Committee during a televised hearing.

What results are possible?

The seven-MP Committee will judge whether the former Prime Minister was in ‘contempt’ of Parliament through misleading the Commons.

The primary aim is to ascertain whether the offence was committed, with secondary charges concerned over Johnson’s intent to mislead raising the severity of the sanction received.

The full House of Commons has to approve the Committee’s recommendation, in addition to any sanctions.

Punishments range from an apology to a suspension, although the latter penalty has been a rarity over recent years.

The outcome alone may hold the most weight for Johnson’s political future, however, as a ruling that he intentionally misled Parliament could deny him a return to high office.

The Timeline

It is important to note that the parties/gatherings listed below remain ‘alleged’ until otherwise confirmed by the inquiry:

Boris Johnson Partygate Timeline - Copyright mine.


  • May 15, 2020 – Boris Johnson attends a ‘cheese and wine’ party in the Downing Street garden
  • May 20, 2020 – Number 10 host ‘socially distanced drinks’ in the garden
  • June 18, 2020 – Cabinet Office host a boozy farewell gathering that ends in a prosecco-fuelled fight
  • June 19, 2020 – Boris Johnson attends a ‘surprise’ birthday party thrown by his wife Carrie at No 10. (Johnson is later fined £50 for attending the event)
  • November 13, 2020 – Boris Johnson attends Lee Cain’s leaving party and celebrates Dominic Cummings departure
  • December 10, 2020 – Gavin Williamson throws a party for Education staff
  • December 15, 2020 – Number 10 hosts a three-and-a-half-hour quiz
  • December 17, 2020 – Cabinet Office Christmas party
  • December 18, 2020 – Downing Street hosts a Christmas party


  • January 14, 2021 – Downing Street hosts leaving drinks
  • April 16, 2021 – Downing Street hosts two leaving dos the night before Prince Philip’s funeral
  • November 30, 2021 – Reports emerge of Downing Street Christmas party (Dec 18, 2020)
  • December 7, 2021 – Leaked footage of mock Downing Street press conference (Dec 22, 2020)


  • April 12, 2022 – Boris Johnson (and 82 others) issued a fixed penalty notice for breaching COVID regulations (Metropolitan Police Inquiry)
  • April 21, 2022 – House of Commons approves referring Boris Johnson to Parliamentary Privileges Committee (Commons Privilege Committee Inquiry)
  • May 25, 2022 – Sue Gray publishes Partygate report (Cabinet Office Inquiry)


  • March 22, 2023 – Boris Johnson gives evidence before the Commons Privileges Committee in a televised hearing

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