Operation Hillman: inside the Met’s Downing Street parties investigation

More than 50 people will be given a week to complete a questionnaire from police

No. 10 Downing Street
(Image credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Detectives investigating a string of alleged parties in Downing Street will begin contacting the people involved by the end of this week, the Metropolitan Police has said.

The force has launched Operation Hillman to get to the bottom of claims that the lawmakers and staff who helped set the nationwide Covid-19 rules were breaching them behind closed doors.

Officers will be sending “formal questionnaires” to more than 50 people, mostly via email, said Scotland Yard in a statement last night.

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The dates

The Met is looking into 12 incidents on eight dates between May 2020 and April 2021, which have also come under scrutiny by civil servant Sue Gray in an internal government investigation. She released her initial findings at the end of last month but noted that she was “extremely limited” in what she could say due to the parallel police probe.

  • 20 May 2020: Downing Street staff were allegedly invited to a “bring your own booze” gathering in the garden of No. 10.
  • 18 June 2020: A gathering in the Cabinet Office was said to be held to mark the departure of a Downing Street private secretary.
  • 19 June 2020: Boris Johnson’s birthday. ITV News claimed that an event took place in the Cabinet Room with cake and “a chorus of Happy Birthday”.
  • 13 November 2020: Dominic Cummings resigned from his post as Johnson’s top aide. There were said to be two subsequent gatherings in No. 10 and in Johnson’s flat.
  • 17 December 2020: Gray looked at three separate gatherings on this date: a Cabinet Office “online Christmas quiz” and two other events to mark the departures of two officials.
  • 18 December 2020: This event was described in the Gray report as “a gathering in No 10 Downing Street ahead of the Christmas break”.
  • 14 January 2021: An event at the start of last year was said to have been held in No. 10 as two private secretaries departed.
  • 16 April 2021: Two more gatherings were reported in No. 10 as two officials left.

The Telegraph added that the latest police statement came as a new image emerged, “showing Mr Johnson attending a virtual Christmas quiz with an open bottle of Champagne nearby” on 15 December 2020. The Met has said it will now review its initial decision not to investigate that event, which was included in the Gray report.

As more and more party allegations have been drip fed to the press, Johnson has repeatedly insisted that “all guidance was followed”. Although he offered a “heartfelt apology” in the House of Commons for attending the No. 10 garden gathering on 20 May 2020, he claimed he believed “implicitly” it was a work event.

The evidence

The questionnaires going out to more than 50 people will ask for “an account and explanation of the recipient’s participation” related to specific events, said the police. The document will have “formal legal status and must be answered truthfully”, added the force. Recipients will have seven days to respond, with the Met insisting it is “progressing the investigation at pace”.

Detectives on the force’s Special Enquiry Team are examining more than 500 documents and 300 images provided by the Cabinet Office, but said they will be requesting further information. They may also need to contact more people in the “coming days and weeks” if they are named as having potentially breached regulations.

The consequences

Announcing the investigation last month, Met Commissioner Cressida Dick explained that the police were looking at “summary only offences”, meaning those found to have breached the rules would get a fixed penalty notice (FPN). “I should stress that the fact that the Met is now investigating does not mean that FPNs will necessarily be issued in every instance and to every person involved,” she added.

The Times noted that FPNs for attending a large gathering are £100, doubling to £200 if not paid within 14 days, but they are much higher for the organisers. “Boris Johnson could ultimately be fined more than £12,000 if he is found to have breached his own coronavirus laws, because the size of fixed penalty notices increases with each offence,” calculated the paper. It added that at least half of the 12 events under investigation were “either attended by Johnson or are linked to him”.

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