UK ministers dismissed accusations that Boris Johnson misled parliament over what he knew about Downing Street parties held in breach of coronavirus rules, saying he was given the “wrong information” about the gatherings.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, Brexit opportunities minister, defended Johnson on Monday after it emerged that fines had been issued to Downing Street staff for a party held at Number 10 the night before Queen Elizabeth sat alone during the funeral of her husband, Prince Philip, in compliance with the coronavirus restrictions in place at the time.
Whitehall officials confirmed that fixed-penalty notices had been received by some of those who attended the party on April 16 2021.
The Metropolitan Police is investigating at least 12 gatherings that took place in Whitehall in 2020 and 2021 when Covid-19 curbs were in force in England, including several at 10 Downing Street.
An initial 20 fixed-penalty notices were issued last week for breaches of Covid regulations, but the police said they would not name those who had received them.
Johnson last year said of the gatherings that “the [Covid] guidelines were followed at all times”, but the Metropolitan police has concluded that breaches of regulations had been made in the “partygate” scandal.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader, has accused Johnson of misleading the Commons. Speaking last week, he said the prime minister had breached the ministerial code, which says that government members who mislead the Commons should resign.
But Rees-Mogg told LBC radio on Monday that “the fact that the prime minister was given wrong information doesn’t mean he misled people”.
“The prime minister said he was told the rules were followed but that turns out not to be correct. If the prime minister is told information that is incorrect and passes that information on he has made no deliberate attempt to mislead anybody,” he said.
Whitehall officials on Monday confirmed that Helen MacNamara, the former director of ethics in the Cabinet Office, was in the first tranche of those who received notices last week. It is understood that the notice relates to a leaving party held in the Cabinet Office in June 2020.
In a statement, MacNamara said: “I am sorry for the error of judgment I have shown. I have accepted and paid the fixed-penalty notice.”
It emerged on Monday that fines have also been issued to those who partied in Number 10 the night before Prince Philip’s funeral. About 30 people attended the two leaving parties which later combined into one, with staff dancing into the early hours of the morning.
The following morning the Queen was pictured sitting alone during the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh, which was attended by just 30 family members in order to comply with coronavirus restrictions.
Downing Street refused to comment on the latest revelations and said that Johnson would provide an official statement following the conclusion of the police inquiry.
“The prime minister wants to comment at the conclusion of the process and not in the middle of it,” the prime minister’s spokesperson said.
Rees-Mogg, who at the Conservative party’s spring conference last month described the “partygate scandal” as “fluff”, sought to play down the controversy.
“We have a war going on in Ukraine, we have atrocities being carried out, we have pictures coming through that show the enormous brutality of Putin’s army,” he said.
“In the context of what is going on, not just with Ukraine but with the cost-of-living crisis, this is not the most important issue in the world. Having said that, people should obviously obey the law.”
Asked whether the prime minister should resign if fined by the Met, Simon Hart, Wales secretary, argued that voters wanted an apology but not resignations. He added that it would not be “appropriate” to engage in a “six-week self-indulgent leadership contest” in light of the situation in Ukraine.
“The world has moved on a considerable distance,” he said.