PM ‘dropped a clanger’ with garden bash apology, legal expert suggests

Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted he was at the garden party in a statement on January 12, 2020

Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted he was at the garden party in a statement before Prime Minister's Questions. - Credit: PA

Boris Johnson committed a blunder in his carefully-worded “partygate” apology speech to MPs in suggesting the garden differed from the indoor space at Number 10, a leading East Anglian lawyer believes.

Legal experts have been poring over the wording of the prime minister’s statement to the House on Wednesday, January 12, concerning a “bring your own booze” gathering he attended in the Number 10 garden – and some aspects of it have them puzzled.

Tim Ridyard, a partner at regional law firm Ashtons Legal, believes that the embattled PM’s regret at not ordering staff indoors is inconsistent with the idea that the garden was a “workspace”.

Tim Ridyard , a partner at Ashtons Legal

Tim Ridyard, a partner in Ashtons Legal, which has offices in Ipswich, Norwich, Diss, Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge - Credit: Dave Richardson

“No 10 is a big department with a garden as an extension of the office which has been in constant use because of the role of fresh air in stopping the virus,” Mr Johnson told MPs in the speech. His 25 minutes in the garden after 6pm was “to thank groups of staff”, he explained.

But then he tells them: “With hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside. I should have found some other way to thank them.”

It’s also unclear what Mr Johnson is apologising for as the PM simply states: “I want to apologise. I know that millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months”, says Mr Ridyard.

The PM said he believed “implicitly” that the garden bash on May 20,2020, during lockdown was a work event – which is his position – but acknowledged “even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance”, people would not see it that way.

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“He’s said a lot and said nothing. He’s caveated it and said ‘if a technical offence has been committed’,” says the lawyer. It was “definitely a guidance breach come what may” – the question was around whether a criminal offence was committed, he believes.

“That statement had been pored over line by line, word by word,” says Mr Ridyard. “It’s actually an apology for the perception of what it looked like.” 

The line taken by the PM was that it was purely a technical offence, he said.

“The bit I don’t understand – where I think the wheels come off the argument – is he says ‘what I should have done is I should have got everybody back inside’. What’s actually meant by that?” he says.

“I actually think that muddies the waters because first of all what is he apologising for? Is he apologising that things weren’t done in the spirit of the times?”

But the question of bringing people inside doesn’t fit the argument, he says.

“What difference does it make because if his argument is it’s a work event it makes not a jot of difference. I think he’s probably dropped a clanger there.”

On May 10, 2020, the PM actively encouraged people to return to work if they couldn’t work from home and said they could take unlimited outdoor exercise – but declared he would increase fines for breaches of lockdown rules.

On May 12, amended regulations to make it clear that recreational purposes was a reasonable excuse for being outdoors. Householders were permitted to meet one other person from outside their household outdoors.

Senior official Sue Gray is conducting an inquiry into what went on.