Has Rishi Sunak been drawn into ‘Partygate’ scandal?

Chancellor questioned by police over accusation he broke lockdown laws

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak
Chancellor Rishi Sunak: hoping for no U-turns
(Image credit: Jacob King/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak is among those being questioned by police investigating the “Partygate” scandal – the series of gatherings held in Downing Street during the national lockdown.

The Treasury confirmed that the chancellor is one of 50 individuals – including Boris Johnson – who have been asked to submit written evidence to the Metropolitan Police’s investigation, codenamed Operation Hillman.

Sunak is understood to have “briefly attended” a gathering held for Johnson’s birthday on 19 June 2020, The Guardian reported, one of 12 events now being investigated by police over alleged breaches of Covid-19 regulations.

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Allies of the chancellor told The Telegraph he only entered the room for a meeting about the pandemic “as the gathering was ending”. A source close to Sunak said: “Inevitably he has received a questionnaire given he both lives and works in the building.”

The Financial Times (FT) said the chancellor is teetotal and his allies have insisted he merely stumbled upon the party, organised by Johnson’s wife Carrie, as he prepared to attend a ministerial meeting.

The Met’s decision to send Sunak a questionnaire is the first time the chancellor has been drawn into the scandal that has engulfed the government in recent months.

The development raises the possibility that Sunak could be fined for a breach of the pandemic rules. The Daily Mail said the chancellor has not yet responded to the questionnaire, but has seven days to return it to avoid being fined £100.

Sunak has tried to distance himself from the scandal, notably choosing to go through with an event 200 miles from Westminster on the day the PM offered his apologies to the Commons over the lockdown breaches.

Asked earlier this month whether he expected to receive a questionnaire form, the chancellor replied: “No… well, I don’t know.” Questioned by the BBC about Johnson’s birthday event in a separate interview, Sunak replied: “You’re asking me about something that happened almost two years ago.”

Suspicion first emerged about whether the chancellor attended any of the events in question after the Daily Mirror reported earlier this month that police had obtained a “bombshell picture” of Johnson holding a can of beer while standing next to Sunak.

All recipients of the Met’s form are asked what was the purpose of their participation in the event under scrutiny, how long they were there and who else was present. The most crucial question is: “What, if any, lawful exemption applied to the gathering and what reasonable excuse did you have for participating in said gathering?”

If Sunak – the bookmakers’ favourite to succeed Johnson in No. 10 – was fined, it “could potentially take some of the pressure off the prime minister to quit,” said the FT.

But any officials other than Johnson who are fined are “not expected to be identified”, The Telegraph reported, so it is possible Sunak could receive a fine without that information being made public.

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