Dominic Raab has become the first cabinet minister to concede that a “formal party” in Downing Street last December would have been contrary to Covid-19 guidance, saying it would have been “the wrong thing to do”.
It came as MPs and campaigners, including a woman whose mother died of Covid-19 on the day when staff are alleged to have held a drinks party at No 10, called for the Covid inquiry to investigate the effect that politicians breaking rules has had on the erosion of public trust in politics and compliance with pandemic restrictions.
Anneliese Dodds, the Labour party’s chair, said it was the first admission that a party inside No 10 would have been, in itself, against the rules.
“We have it in black and white from the prime minister’s right-hand man: a formal party at Downing Street would have been both wrong and against Covid rules,” she said.
“These comments from his deputy pile the pressure on Boris Johnson to come clean about what happened last Christmas and publish the full facts about the party at No 10. There cannot be one rule for senior Conservatives and another rule for everyone else.”
Raab, the deputy prime minister, said Johnson had assured him that no rules had been broken over the alleged gathering last year, despite reports from various sources in several newspapers. “Let’s just be clear what we’re talking about here, something that took place a year ago, unsubstantiated anonymous claims being made,” Raab said on Sunday.
“It’s impossible to answer the charge on that basis, only that we are clear the rules were being followed. If there is a breach of the rules, there is a breach of the rules, but I don’t know the full facts because I wasn’t there.”
Asked if, as a lawyer, he agreed it would have been a breach of the rules to have held a gathering, Raab said: “Of course, if there was a formal party held … that is something that is clearly contrary to the guidance.
“If anyone held a party contrary to the rules, of course that is the wrong thing to do.”
“If something unsubstantiated from anonymous sources actually materialised, then of course it would be wrong,” he added.
Two Labour MPs have reported the alleged gathering at No 10 to the Metropolitan police. However, Raab, who is also the justice secretary, said the police “don’t normally look back and investigate things that have taken place a year ago” – a comment that drew some incredulity from the opposition.
Jackie Green, whose 86-year-old mother, Beryl, died of Covid in hospital on the night of 18 December, when a party is alleged to have been held, said she was shaken by Raab’s comments.
“The claims that there is any distinction between a formal or informal party or that the guidance was caveated is total nonsense,” she said. “It was crystal clear. As far as I am concerned, by abiding by those rules, the consequence was my mum died alone and frightened – and if I had been with her, I might have been able to alleviate some of that fear.”
The government is due to announce the chair of its Covid-19 inquiry within the next fortnight. Green said she hoped the inquiry would look into rule-breaking by politicians in power. “It was shameful how Dominic Raab was trying to evade the questions,” she said.
Daisy Cooper, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, said the party would write to the inquiry chair to urge them to investigate the truth about what happened in Downing Street.
“Lessons must be learned, and there is no doubt the endless list of ministers breaking rules has destroyed the public’s trust in Covid rules which keep us all safe,” she said.
Raab earlier told Sky News’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday programme that the rules for Christmas parties this year were “very clear”. He said: “People can go in and have Christmas parties.
“Of course, employers will want to think common sense about how they do that. We won’t be having a Ministry of Justice-wide Christmas party this year. We will be having appropriate drinks at a smaller scale.
“The government wants people to be able to enjoy Christmas this year. People should feel free to go and enjoy those celebrations, and every employer will think about the right way to do it and I’m the same as everybody else.”