Downing Street staff have been asked to provide a “reasonable excuse” for attending lockdown-busting parties while the UK was in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Metropolitan Police sent questionnaires to almost 90 people accused of attending gatherings at No. 10 and in Whitehall. The questionnaires are “equivalent to a police interview”, said The Times, and asked attendees to “explain and justify their presence” at the gatherings, which may have broken the government’s own Covid rules.
Boris Johnson is understood to have “already returned” his copy of the questionnaire, said ITV, which has seen a leaked copy of one of the documents – providing insight into the questions he and others are likely to have been asked.
Johnson questioned under police caution
The document obtained by ITV News advises that those filling out the questionnaire are doing so under caution, which would make Johnson the first UK prime minister to be “subject to that level of police questioning”, said the broadcaster.
Former Labour prime minister Tony Blair was until now the only sitting prime minister to have faced a police interview. However, this was as a witness in the investigation of the 2007 cash for honours scandal and the interview was therefore not conducted under caution.
It was felt Blair’s position as prime minister would “become untenable” if he was interviewed under police caution, and it would have led to his resignation, The Sunday Telegraph reported at the time.
The ‘flavour’ of questions
The form leaked to ITV asks around 12 questions in total, including: “Did you participate in a gathering on a specific date?”; “What was the purpose of your participation in that gathering?”; “Did you interact with, or undertake any activity with, other persons present at the gathering? If yes, please provide details”, and “What, if any, lawful exception applied to the gathering and/or what reasonable excuse did you have for participating in the gathering?”
However, the broadcaster reports that the questionnaires were “tailored to each individual being investigated” and so the document can only give “a flavour” of the questions Johnson and others may have been asked, which are likely to have varied slightly.
Options for recipients
The Metropolitan Police questionnaire gives recipients three ways to respond. They can remain silent and answer no questions, provide an answer to the written questions in the attached document, or provide a prepared statement in their own words.
While recipients can refuse to answer any of the questions, they are also warned that doing so “could harm their defence in a potential court case”, said The Times. The document also advises them to “ensure the caution is read and understand prior to any answers to questions being provided”.
Timings of the investigation
ITV reported that recipients of the police questionnaire have “seven days to respond”. The latest batch was sent out on Monday, “meaning the police investigation still has at least a week left to run”.
Once the investigation is “wrapped up”, Conservatives will be making their own judgement and “will effectively hold the Prime Minister’s political future in their hands”, said The Telegraph.
Johnson has taken legal advice
The questionnaire reminds recipients that they have the right to “free and independent legal advice” before providing the police with any information. Johnson reportedly consulted a lawyer “hired at his expense”, reported The Times, and is expected to argue that he did not violate Covid rules, attending six events “as part of his working day”.
Junior members of staff reportedly told ITV News that they are “concerned they won’t be able to afford the same standard of legal advice” as the prime minister, and are therefore exposed to a greater risk of being fined.
However, the questions were criticised as “pretty bland” by former Metropolitan Police Chief Superintendent Dal Babu, who spoke to the broadcaster. He suggested that a “lawyer would perhaps give you a ‘get out of jail card’ in response to all of those questions” and that the questionnaire didn’t seem “a particularly effective way of investigating the parties that have happened at Downing Street.”