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London Eye: UK confronts difference between a drinks event and a party

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Boris Johnson is meanwhile becoming what a British Prime Minister least wants to be: a figure for ridicule. Johnson has redefined parties for a long time to come. His biggest worry now is his position with the Conservative Party.

London Eye: UK confronts difference between a drinks event and a party
LONDON: When is a gathering over drinks and snacks not a party? This is the most serious national question that Britain confronts today. The answer to that could well bring Boris Johnson’s prime ministership, and his political career, to an end. Particularly if the answer is that the difference is little, if any at all.
A four-word phrase, ‘Bring Your Own Booze’ holds the key. Boris Johnson’s Principal Private Secretary Mark Reynolds sent an email to about 100 people inviting them to get together in the 10 Downing Street garden on May 20, 2020, when the official advice, announced by the Prime Minister, was that meetings should be restricted to just two outdoors, two metres apart.
A second giveaway in that invitation was to guests to come to “make the most of the lovely weather.” The Prime Minister’s difficult task is to convince the nation that a meeting where guests turned up with alcohol to make the most of lovely weather was a work meeting.
Boris Johnson made the position yet more difficult for himself on Tuesday. Cornered into an interview in the course of a visit to a hospital, he said: “Nobody warned me that it was against the rules. I would have remembered that.”
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner was quick to point out the obvious. “He's the prime minister, he set the rules, he didn't need anyone to tell him that the party he attended broke them. If he had any respect for the British public, he would do the decent thing and resign.” For Boris Johnson she said it’s now “the end of the road.”
The Prime Minister has said he thought the party — as everyone but he appears to be calling it — was a work event. He admitted to Parliament, through the course of a profuse apology, that he thought this was a work event. He admits he was there for about 25 minutes.
Photographs of the event show about 30 people chatting around bottles of wine and a cheeseboard. The Prime Minister is persuading the nation to believe him when he says he thought that was work, where people were talking work. It just happened over bottles of wine.
But it’s far from uncommon for work colleagues to gather at a party and for conversation to turn to work matters. It inevitably does. The difference between a gathering of colleagues around wine and cheese, and a party where wine and cheese is served where colleagues will also talk work is far from clear. It’s a grey area.
Senior civil servant Sue Gray has been tasked to determine which of the two it was. Her inquiry report is expected next week.
Two wrongs
Two issues overshadow the Prime Minister. One, whether he broke lockdown rules, with the rest, in joining that event, even if it was for 25 minutes. Second, whether he misled Parliament last week in offering his account over it that was part apology and part justification.
His former top aide Dominic Cummings has said, and he is prepared to testify on oath, that he warned the Prime Minister about the party, and that it would not be proper under the rules in force then. If Cummings is proven right, the Prime Minister would face charges of misleading parliament — a serious charge for a prime minister to face.
The BBC reports that two former Downing Street staff have said that they know that Dominic Cummings had warned the PM about the party. He says it is “not credible” for the PM to suggest that Reynolds could have issued the invitation for such an event, that the PM attended, without his knowledge and approval. Cummings is due to give evidence to the Gray inquiry.
Boris Johnson is meanwhile becoming what a British Prime Minister least wants to be: a figure for ridicule. The British have begun to hand out invitations to gatherings over wine and food that they say they are not calling parties. Boris Johnson has redefined parties for a long time to come. His biggest worry now is his position with the Conservative Party.
— London Eye is a weekly column by CNBC-TV18’s Sanjay Suri, which gives a peek at business-as-unusual from London and around.
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