Wine and cheese are two items that aren’t typically associated with hard graft. Work first, then wine, is the traditional order of things. But the atmosphere of the 15th May gathering in the Downing Street garden looked just about business-like enough for Dominic Raab to maintain a straight face while defending it as a work meeting.
The 20th May gathering, however, first revealed in Dominic Cummings’ blog and confirmed by a leaked email, will be harder to shrug off. On those rare occasions when wine is deployed to lubricate white collar labour, it is provided. It is limited. And it is not referred to as “booze”. Exclamation marks are left well alone. “Socially Distanced Drinks!” (“as if!”) combined with “bring your own booze!” in the email from Johnson’s Principle Private Secretary Martin Reynolds says only one thing: sod the rules, it’s party time. It was almost certainly illegal.
Of course, as last week’s verdicts in the Colston trial reminds us, guilt or innocence in legal terms is less a question of objective fact than something to be determined by a jury — or, in the case of a breach of May 2020’s lockdown regulations, by a magistrate. And evidential issues might arise: would Reynolds’ email necessarily be admissible as hearsay, for instance? But on the facts that have so far been revealed, some attendees, at least, would be highly likely to be convicted.
As for the Prime Minister, the offence is committed by being outside your home. But if he sanctioned the gathering, he is guilty of the offences under s.44(1) Magistrates Court Act 1981: aiding and abetting. His only way out would be to say that he knew nothing about it, or believed it was a work meeting, or something along those lines. His chances of acquittal would depend on the evidence, much of which is yet to be revealed.
And then there is the Guidance: the rules without the force of law, but which the Government repeatedly told us we must follow. At the time, the Guidance said “businesses should also take reasonable steps to avoid people being gathered together” and, under the heading “Public Gatherings”, “workers should try to minimise all meetings and other gatherings in the workplace”. The Government is not a business and Downing Street is not a public place, but Guidance is about spirit rather than letter.
On both sides of the Covid divide, many will feel that the 20th May gathering, coming just minutes after a Government minister took to the podium to urge the nation to follow the rules, is too much to swallow. And if the appropriate level of public anger is maintained, Johnson might need to organise another wine and cheese party – this time without any cheese, or guests.