Birthday parties should have been put off “in all cases” while coronavirus restrictions were in place, the Transport Secretary has said, as he admitted it was “clearly unwise” for the Prime Minister to have a birthday celebration inside No 10 during the first lockdown.
No 10 has conceded staff “gathered briefly” in the Cabinet Room on the afternoon of June 19 2020 following a meeting after it was alleged 30 people attended, shared cake, and sang “happy birthday” to the PM, despite social mixing indoors being banned.
Grant Shapps said it was disputed how many people attended, and that the surprise gathering had not been organised by the Prime Minister’s wife Carrie Johnson as reported.
But he said “it clearly shouldn’t happen” and that people should have stuck by the rules.
ITV News reported the get together featured a rendition of “happy birthday” and was attended by staff, Mrs Johnson, and interior designer Lulu Lytle.
Ms Lytle, who was doing up the PM’s flat, admitted attending but insisted she was only present “briefly” while waiting to talk to Mr Johnson about the lavish refurbishments.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “A group of staff working in No 10 that day gathered briefly in the Cabinet Room after a meeting to wish the Prime Minister a happy birthday.
“He was there for less than 10 minutes.”
Mr Shapps said staff would have “thought they were being kind” by marking the PM’s birthday but he said it was “almost certainly very unwise”.
The Transport Secretary was asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about a letter sent to Mr Johnson by then seven-year-old Josephine Booth in March 2020 who told the Prime Minister she had cancelled her own party due to coronavirus.
Mr Johnson tweeted at the time that she “sets a great example to us all by postponing her birthday party until we have sent coronavirus packing”.
Josephine sets a great example to us all by postponing her birthday party until we have sent coronavirus packing.— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) March 21, 2020
Together we can beat this. In the meantime let's all wish her happy birthday (twice) whilst washing our hands. #BeLikeJosephine #StayHomeSaveLives https://t.co/xmDOw60hhV pic.twitter.com/yl7uxe9lhh
Mr Shapps said: “I think that she did exactly the right thing.
“I think that should have been done in all cases, and I don’t seek to say otherwise.”
He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “I think people should stick by… should have stuck by the rules.”
But he sought to explain the gathering by saying those present had already been working together.
“I think we can be pretty clear that the Prime Minister didn’t present the cake to himself.
“This is somebody coming in with that cake and I’ve explained to you that I’m furious with everybody who broke the rules,” he told Sky News.
But he added: “These are staff he would have been working with and was working with all day long, and will have been many a time in the same room with them working on the response to coronavirus.
“They come in, give him a cake, I understand I think it lasted for 10 minutes and that was it.”
He told Good Morning Britain: “Look, as the Prime Minister’s said, where mistakes were made, even though it wasn’t… I mean, he would have turned up and the cake would have been there.
“He didn’t know about it, and it clearly shouldn’t happen.
“But Sue Gray will get to the bottom of that; the Prime Minister’s already said there will be consequences falling out from the Sue Gray report, and my hope is we can get to see that very quickly.”
Chancellor Rishi Sunak was understood to have briefly attended as the gathering was breaking up as he entered the room to attend a Covid strategy meeting.
ITV reported picnic food from M&S was eaten and Martin Reynolds, Mr Johnson’s under-fire principal private secretary, was also said to have attended, as was No 10’s director of communications Jack Doyle and head of operations Shelley Williams-Walker.
Social gatherings indoors were forbidden under lockdown laws at the time, with a relaxation of the regulations permitting gatherings of up to six people to take place outside.
Senior official Sue Gray was already aware of the birthday party allegations, Mr Shapps said.
She has been investigating a series of claims of rule-breaking parties in No 10 and across Whitehall as Mr Johnson faces calls to resign as Prime Minister, including from some of his own Conservative MPs who are waiting for her report before deciding on the PM’s fate.
ITV News also reported later the same evening family friends were hosted upstairs to further celebrate the Prime Minister’s 56th birthday in his official residence.
No 10 said: “This is totally untrue.
“In line with the rules at the time the Prime Minister hosted a small number of family members outside that evening.”
The allegations capped another torrid day for Mr Johnson after Lord Agnew dramatically resigned as a minister at the despatch box over the “schoolboy” handling of fraudulent Covid business loans.
Mr Johnson was earlier forced to launch a Cabinet Office investigation into Tory MP Nusrat Ghani’s allegation that a Government whip linked her “Muslimness” to her sacking as a minister in 2020.