Saturday 15 January 2022

The 20th May 2020 Downing Street party that the Johnsons attended was not illegal. They did not attend any of the other dozen parties.

Charles Utley is the son of the great Telegraph writer T.E. Utley and a barrister and my Facebook friend. What he has to say about the 20th May 2020 party that might bring down the British government has convinced me that it did not break the law.

(By the way I thought on Thursday that this would blow over, yesterday I began to think it would bring down Boris. In many ways I hope so. He is not up to the job by normal measures, he is a liar and hopelessly inattentive to detail but much worse are his plans for Carbon Zero, to settle a million Chinese or more in England and his war his ministry wages on fur coats to keep his new wife happy. Yes he refused to lock down in December because of Omicron but only because Tory MPs and his cabinet wouldn't let him. His enemies are so awful that I don't want them to win but a swift exit would be better than a prolonged agony. But who else is there? And is this the moment for a prolonged election?)

Over to Charles.

Was the 20th May 2020 Downing Street party illegal?


The media are sure the party was criminal, but most of the journalists who have come to that opinion have not bothered to read, or understand, the regulations in force at that time. They have simply grasped that the rules allowed people to meet one person outside in a public place who was not in their household and assumed that it followed from that that being in the 10 Downing Street garden with thirty or forty other people was a crime.


First, it was obviously political folly on an extraordinary scale to hold a party inside or outside Downing Street during the first vicious lock up. But it does not follow from that that the 20th May event was actually illegal.


There were rules making certain "gatherings" in public places illegal. But they are irrelevant. The garden of 10 Downing Street is not a public place.


The only relevant offence was being in breach of Regulation 6 of the then regulations. That provided that no person could leave or be outside the place where they (sic) were living without a reasonable excuse.
This, perhaps, is a minor point, but the Johnsons could not have been guilty of leaving the place where they lived or being outside it by going into their garden (gardens were included in the definition of a place where people lived).


But, obviously, the real question is whether the Downing Street workers who went into the garden thereby became criminals.


The regulations gave various non-exhaustive examples of reasonable excuses for leaving or being outside a person's home. Exercising with household members or one other was one example. Going to work was another. But it is important to bear in mind that they were only examples: there could be lots of other reasonable excuses not set out in the regulations.


There can be no doubt but that the Downing Street employees were perfectly entitled to go to work on 20th May 2020. They had a reasonable excuse for leaving home. The question is whether they continued to have a reasonable excuse for being away from home when they moved from the inside of number 10 to its garden.


The example of a reasonable excuse, that we could have a walk with one other person, is pretty well irrelevant, though journalists, understandably, think it frightfully important. The Downing Street workers were, perfectly legally, crammed inside the building with each other for hours on end. They would obviously have been safer from infection if they had been in the garden. But, did the fact that booze was involved mean that being in the garden meant there was no longer a reasonable excuse for their being away from home?


I am amused by the puritanical streak in my fellow countrymen. I have seen a great many posts and comments from otherwise perfectly decent people saying that the presence of the dreaded alcohol meant that the gathering must have been illegal. But is that really the case? If the workers had stayed at their desks, but had glasses of wine, would the wine have meant that their reasonable excuse for being away from home (going to work) was suddenly lost? Of course not. The booze is relevant, but miles away from being determinative.


The regulations created criminal offences. It follows that they have to be construed strictly. I accept that some magistrates, particularly those who felt strongly that extremely authoritarian laws were wonderful, might have felt able to convict the Downing Street employees of being in breach of Regulation 6 when they stepped into the garden. But no proper judge would, I dare to say, have done so.


None of this, I stress, is to suggest that it was not both idiotic and insensitive of the Prime Minister's Private Secretary to throw the party. And the Prime Minister himself was surely right to say, yesterday, that, as soon as he saw what was happening, he should have stopped it. But being politically blind does not necessarily mean a chap is also a criminal.

Boris was a great fool not to say the party was within the law. He is not as clever as I had thought.

I'd be amazed if Dominic Cummings is not orchestrating this campaign or leaks intended to defenestrate Boris but he agrees with Charles.

Two tweets that you should see.

Replying to
Every time there is a political scandal you can see our Puritan heritage.

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