Boris Johnson’s camp is in panic mode over fresh claims of possible rule-breaking at Chequers during Covid, prompting the sacking of the ex-prime minister’s lawyers and a public lambasting of Rishi Sunak’s government.
The latest furore centres on allegations that up to a dozen gatherings at Chequers and No 10 were held during lockdown after new details were referred to the police by the Cabinet Office.
In a plot twist worthy of the stage, the gatherings were highlighted by Mr Johnson’s own government-appointed lawyers who were trawling through the ex-PM’s diaries in preparation for the forthcoming Covid inquiry. The new claims are now being assessed by both Scotland Yard and Thames Valley Police.
Mr Johnson, who sacked his legal team on the spot, is understood to be both “furious” and “in despair” about getting dragged into fresh questions about Partygate – and does not think he did anything wrong, according to one source. Another friend said the ex-PM was angry and worried about the Cabinet Office passing on evidence to police.
The row has sparked a Westminster guessing game about who may have visited Mr Johnson at the grace-and-favour Buckinghamshire mansion between June 2020 and May 2021 – the dates being looked at by police.
It also raises new scrutiny over those close to Mr Johnson and his wife Carrie who may have been invited to the house near Aylesbury during the period in question.
The diaries passed to Cabinet Office officials reveal visits by family and friends to Chequers during the pandemic, according to The Times, which first reported the story.
The former PM’s sister Rachel Johnson has suggested she visited during the Covid pandemic – telling LBC this week that “as far as I’m aware, all the rules were followed whenever I went to Chequers”.
But she would not elaborate on when she was there and what sort of gatherings might have been held during periods of Covid curbs.
Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Johnson loyalist, told GB News he had visited Chequers with his family during the pandemic, but that the meeting was “entirely within the rules”.
He said: “I was invited there with my children, entirely in accordance with the rules. Another senior government minister was going to come but the prime minister cancelled him because you were only allowed to have one family present at the time.”
Mr Rees-Mogg also revealed a cricket match took place. “I would also say that one of my children after lunch bowled out the prime minister and removed his middle stump, but that would be boasting.”
Among those known to be friends of the couple include journalist Alex Wickham, the former Johnson adviser Henry Newman and long-time spokesman Ross Kempsell – said to be the ex-PM’s tennis partner and reportedly in line for a peerage in his resignation honours list. All three have been approached by The Independent.
Chequers has been the scene for many important meetings hosted by prime ministers. In July 2020, Mr Johnson used a dinner there to ask then-Treasury adviser Allegra Stratton to join as his press secretary, according to the Daily Mail.
And former BBC chair Richard Sharp confirmed that he dined with Mr Johnson and his distant cousin Sam Blyth at Chequers in May 2021, after he had been confirmed as the government’s choice for the top role at the broadcaster.
England was in national lockdown between late March and June 2020. In June, people were permitted to meet outside in groups of up to six, and in July hospitality businesses were reopened and gatherings up to 30 were legally permitted.
That September, restrictions were reimposed and “the rule of six” once again applied before further relaxation on a three-tier, regional basis. In November, a second national lockdown was imposed and people were banned from meeting those not in their “support bubble”.
In December another tiered system was reintroduced, before another national lockdown in January 2021 which allowed people to meet only under support bubbles.
In March 2021, England began a phased exit from lockdown, starting with “rule of six” gatherings in March before all limits on social contacts were lifted in July.
Mr Johnson also used Chequers to recuperate after he was hospitalised when severely ill with Covid in April 2020. It later emerged during the Partygate scandal that Carrie Johnson had been based at Chequers during the time of the first, March 2020 lockdown.
The PM was also “commuting” to No 10 during the period between 16 and 27 March 2020. Downing Street insisted that all rules were followed, despite guidance against travel to second homes.
Former adviser Dominic Cummings has previously suggested the Partygate investigation should have looked at Chequers. Asked by UnHerd if there were parties at the country mansion, he said: “So people say.”
On the record, Mr Johnson’s spokesperson dismissed the new claims of gatherings as “totally untrue” and said Cabinet Office officials decided to make “unfounded suggestions both to the police and to the privileges committee”.
The former prime minister accused government officials of making “bizarre and unacceptable” claims, leading No 10 to deny that Mr Johnson was the victim of a “politically motivated stitch-up” – adding that no minister was involved in sanctioning the dossier.
Running alongside all of this is the cross-party privileges committee which is still considering whether Mr Johnson misled parliament and, if so, what sanction would be appropriate.
It has paused its findings to consider this week’s developments but it is understood that MPs think it’s safe to proceed with its report, only delaying things “by a week or two”.