Boris Johnson was handed a police questionnaire on Friday over alleged breaches of Covid-19 lockdown rules, confirming he is under formal investigation over the so-called “partygate” affair.
Number 10 declined to say how many specific incidents the questionnaire related to: Johnson is thought to have attended half of the 12 events being investigated by the Metropolitan Police.
Johnson’s personal lawyer received the police document by email at 9.30pm on Friday night and has seven days to reply; in practice he is expected to be given until Monday, February 21 to complete it.
Sources close to the investigation said more than 80 questionnaires had been sent as part of the police probe, which covers parties in Downing Street and across Whitehall during Covid lockdowns.
“We can confirm the prime minister has now received a questionnaire from the Metropolitan Police and will respond as required,” a Downing Street spokesman said.
Sir John Major, former prime minister, said this week he believed Johnson had broken Covid law and must quit if he was found to have misled parliament. Johnson told MPs he had been assured there were “no parties”.
Johnson’s greatest danger comes from the verdict of Conservative MPs, if he is found to have broken his own Covid rules.
Many Tory MPs are waiting for the outcome of the police investigation before deciding whether to demand a vote of no confidence in the prime minister.
Johnson’s allies believe the number of Tory MPs who have already submitted letters calling for a vote of no confidence has reached 40; a total of 54 is required to trigger a vote.
A senior ally of Johnson was reported by the Times as saying the police would have to be “very certain” that he had breached lockdown rules before issuing him with a fixed-penalty notice. “There is inevitably a degree of discretion here,” they said. “Do you want the Metropolitan Police deciding who the prime minister is? They have to be very certain. ”
The comment brought widespread political criticism. Sir Bob Neill, Conservative chair of the Commons justice committee, stressed that “any suggestion of political pressure on the police is completely reprehensible”.
Downing Street responded to the claim on Friday: “This government has always backed the police and fully respects their complete independence to carry out inquiries without fear or favor.”
Adam Wagner, a human rights barrister, tweeted: “A fixed-penalty notice can only be given if the police reasonably believe someone has committed a criminal offense under the coronavirus regulations.”
Wagner said this week the most likely form of penalty to be issued by police would be fixed-penalty notices, with fines escalating for multiple offenses.
“If he was given a fixed-penalty notice for each and every one of those, I think he would be given those sort of cumulative amounts until eventually the final one would be £ 6,400,” Wagner said.
The Met is investigating at least 12 events that may have breached lockdown rules. On Wednesday, it said it was considering adding a 13th event – a Downing Street Christmas quiz in 2020 – after a picture emerged showing an open wine bottle at the event.
Following Downing Street’s confirmation of receipt of the questionnaire on Friday evening, the Metropolitan Police declined to respond to questions on the total number of questionnaires sent out in the inquiry, which it has dubbed Operation Hillman.
It also declined to reveal the number of events over which the prime minister faced questions.