ITV News podcast reveals Boris Johnson joked about 'the most unsocially distanced party in the UK'

Boris Johnson is alleged to have made the comment in a toast at a Downing Street leaving do. Credit: ITV News

Boris Johnson joked to Downing Street staff “this is the most unsocially distanced party in the UK right now”, during a boozy Number 10 leaving do, ITV News has revealed in an explosive new podcast on the partygate scandal.

The claim aired on Partygate: The Inside Story brings into fresh doubt Mr Johnson’s long-held position that he was unaware rules had been broken within Number 10 during the pandemic lockdown.

Mr Johnson is still due to appear before a Commons standards committee, which is investigating whether he knowingly misled MPs when he insisted all guidance had been followed at the event. When ITV News put the direct quote to Mr Johnson he did not deny saying it.

The claim is among several damning new revelations aired on the podcast - including an allegation staff deliberately destroyed evidence of partying before the Sue Gray and Met Police investigations, the latter of which would make 10 Downing Street the most law-breaking address in the country during lockdown.

The Cabinet Office said Number 10 staff were given clear guidance to retain any relevant information and co-operate fully with the internal investigation.But opposition figures have reacted strongly on Wednesday morning, with the Lib Dems calling on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to agree "to give evidence under oath to the partygate inquiry about everything he knows about rule-breaking in Number 10, including reports that files were shredded".

And Labour Deputy Leader Angela Rayner said the revelations are a reminder of why Boris Johnson is "totally unfit for office".

"While people were unable to say goodbye to loved ones or mourn with their families, he was breaking his own rules with reckless abandon and then lying to the British people," she said.

"Conservative MPs were complicit while Rishi Sunak personally propped him up for months as he set about degrading standards in public life. This joke's not funny anymore."

Co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, Matt Fowler, condemned the former prime minister telling ITV News: "Boris Johnson was breaking his own rules so that he could have a party and thought it was funny. He then lied over and over again about it."Several Number 10 sources, who were instrumental in helping ITV News UK Editor Paul Brand expose wrong-doing throughout the partygate scandal, are heard for the first time, with actors voicing their own recorded words to protect their anonymity.

Among other explosive new revelations made on Partygate: The Inside Story, Downing Street sources claim:

  • Staff corroborated their stories prior to filling out Metropolitan Police questionnaires.

  • The notorious party on the eve of the Duke of Edinburgh funeral service in April 2021 was even more debaucherous than previously documented, with at least two couples “getting it on with each other” and “touching each other up” and two other members of staff  “all over each other” in a kitchen area.

  • Only 50% of the parties were ever investigated by Sue Gray or the Metropolitan Police.

Partygate: The Inside Story gives listeners the inside track behind events which erupted after 7 December 2021 when ITV News broadcast the infamous mock press conference video featuring Allegra Stratton, the effective smoking gun which blew the scandal wide open.

What did Boris Johnson really know about Downing Street’s notorious parties? With fresh revelations from our sources, in their own words, listen to the definitive behind-closed-doors story of one of the biggest scandals of our era.

The series also reveals the moment that triggered a whistleblower to release the footage of the former press spokesperson Stratton and Downing Street staff discussing how to disguise a rule-breaking Christmas party in 2020 from the media.The new evidence gathered in the series brings into fresh question Mr Johnson’s claim he had no knowledge of rule-breaking under his watch.One of the sources recalls hearing Mr Johnson make the “unsocially distanced party” comment, which was received by laughter in the room, as staff gathered around a table filled with alcohol and party snacks to hear him toast his outgoing director of communications Lee Cain in November 2020.It was among several illegal lockdown gatherings for which attending staff were fined, though it was not an event for which Mr Johnson received his own fixed penalty notice by the Metropolitan Police for breaching the rules his government set for the nation to obey at the height of the pandemic.

Recalling the event on the podcast, the source says: “I was working late - some music came on, the mumbling sort of rose, and there were loads of people stood around, but this time I came out because I heard the prime minister speaking and that’s when I heard the quote: ‘This is the most unsocially distanced party in the UK right now’ and everyone was laughing about it.”ITV News later exclusively revealed the photographs of Mr Johnson raising his glass in front of staff at the leaving do on November 13 2020.

Our source says their experience in the room that Friday undermines the former PM’s repeated claim that he was unaware of partying.“The PM making that comment really sticks out in my mind, that was pretty bad, because the picture showed one side of this going on. But what it didn’t capture is the 20 odd people sat on top of each other on the opposite side - they’re literally shoulder to shoulder, clamped in like a tube carriage,” the source said.

“And he was there seeing people sat on other people’s laps (in) close proximity, crowded, scrunched up in front of him. He saw that, he saw people with drinks. You saw the picture. It had booze all over that desk. He’s not blind, he’s not stupid. He saw that and didn’t shut it down.

Boris Johnson addressing staff in front of a table filled with alcohol at the leaving do.

“That was really bad, but that was a normal sight, a regular occurrence, so it wasn’t unusual to see that sort of thing.”

Mr Johnson’s comments and actions remain subject to investigation by the Commons Privileges Committee. The Committee is expected to sit early this year, when Mr Johnson will be called to give oral evidence.

Several sources reveal the incredulity inside Number 10 at his initial absolute denials to Parliament on December 8 2021, the day after the mock press conference was aired, when he said: “I am sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.”

The former PM did not respond when asked why he had allegedly joked about being at the 'most unsocially distanced party in the UK'

One source recalls: “We all watched it live and we were just gobsmacked. We all looked at each other and thought ‘why the hell is he saying this?’ We all know it had happened, he knew it happened - he was there.“We were all just shocked that he would even deny it. He was there. We were there. We were all there together. And suddenly he’s denying it.”

Reacting to the fresh claims, Liberal Democrat Chief Whip Wendy Chamberlain told ITV News: "These shocking revelations confirm Boris Johnson's total disregard for the rules he asked us all to follow. He laughed and partied while the rest of the country suffered.

"Conservative MPs should be ashamed that they backed Johnson for so long and that some are even considering putting him back in Number 10."

The series also makes a series of damning new claims about the toxic culture, misguided leadership and illegal action of staff inside Number 10 which ultimately led to 83 people receiving a record total 126 fines.

Boris Johnson resigned as prime minister in July 2022. Credit: PA Images

A source who claims only 50% of the partying was investigated also alleges members of staff covered up proof of parties, shredding key documents and destroying evidence prior to Sue Gray’s Cabinet Office investigation and the separate Met Police probe.

The source reveals: “There was a sense, and an implication, that we should start deleting evidence before there is an investigation. And a lot of people started shredding things. Any proof of the events started disappearing.

“[Awards from a Christmas party were] basically taken down, kept away, shredded, evidence destroyed. So there was an aspect of getting rid of evidence - just keeping yourself in the clear before an investigation would happen.“

In response to allegations staff covered up evidence of partying, No10 offered no direct reply but reiterated that the cabinet office investigation was led and overseen by an experienced civil servant, working with a team of senior civil servants in line with their Civil Service Code obligations, including impartiality and honesty. Downing Street said it was conducted entirely independently of the former Prime Minister and No10.

Downing Street said the investigation had access to all relevant records and at all times staff were given clear guidance to retain any relevant information and co-operate fully with the investigation.

Christmas parties continued at Number 10 while the nation was told to avoid festivities. Credit: PA

Matt Fowler, co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, called it a "grim and shameful scandal".

"To make matters worse, since then many of those that faced the worst during the pandemic such as the bereaved, doctors and nurses and other key workers have continued to suffer, and are being ignored in the Covid inquiry," he said in a statement.

"Meanwhile Johnson is given a blank check of taxpayers money to hire the best lawyers available to defend himself in the inquiry and is able to wrack up fortunes as an after dinner speaker. The injustice of it all is unpalatable."

Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan said that "Boris can answer for himself on this one", insisting she was not present at any of the events in question when asked about the fresh Partygate revelations. 

"He is no longer the prime minister. We do have to move on now and move forward as a country - we have got a massive job to do," she told the News Agents podcast on Wednesday. 

"We had the Sue Gray report at the time as well, a few months ago, and that looked into all of the alleged events."

"It was very thorough. There was also police investigations as well and this was not referenced in any of that."

In response to the series, a spokesperson for Boris Johnson said: “During the Covid-19 pandemic Boris Johnson led our country through its most dangerous peacetime crisis in living memory. As Prime Minister during a 24/7 national emergency he worked constantly to ensure the government did everything possible in its power to save lives and protect livelihoods.

“Mr Johnson pays heartfelt tribute to the heroic frontline workers who battled the pandemic, many of whom lost their lives. Their service to our country will always be remembered. He is also incredibly grateful for the efforts of hardworking staff who were working in central government - the vast majority of them civil servants - who helped co-ordinate the UK's national response from 10 Downing Street, across Whitehall and throughout the wider UK government. Their work was crucial as they helped marshal the UK Government's response during a national emergency.”In response to whether Mr Johnson said the direct quote, “this is the most unsocially distanced party in the UK right now”, his spokesperson issued an effective non-denial, saying: “During the pandemic 10 Downing Street staff worked to coordinate the UK government's national response. The work of Downing Street staff was crucial as they helped marshal the UK's response to a national emergency.”

When asked what he made of ITV News' revelations, Health Secretary Stephen Barclay referred to the Privileges Committee's investigation.

Mr Barclay, who was a Cabinet Minister under Boris Johnson, said: "What I can say is that the issue of that time has been scrutinised in huge detail. We had the Sue Gray investigation, we had the Met[ropolitan Police] looking at those issues, we had a parliamentary inquiry through the Privileges Committee, so I'm sure if there is any evidence, the Privileges Committee will look at that in detail."

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