'Why was his designer there?' Nick Ferrari grills minister over PM's birthday bash

24 January 2022, 18:32 | Updated: 25 January 2022, 09:37

By Daisy Stephens

Minister Grant Shapps has insisted Boris Johnson's interior designer Lulu Lytle had "come in for a meeting" when quizzed over whether she was present at a birthday party thrown for the Prime Minister in No 10.

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ITV news reported yesterday that on June 19, 2020 - during the first lockdown when there were strict rules against indoor gatherings - up to 30 people attended a 'surprise' party where the PM's wife Carrie presented cake and staff sang happy birthday.

When Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was questioned by LBC's Nick Ferrari about whether Ms Lytle was at the party, he said she had "put out a statement saying that she wasn't invited to anything".

He added: "I think she’d come in for a meeting, was doing work which was legitimate at the time to do, so I think let's get to the facts."

Mr Shapps said he "shared people's sense of upset” but insisted it was important to wait for Sue Gray's report on the parties.

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He told Nick: "I think it's important that rather than drip drip of media reports we get the full picture, not least because I understand that this was a group of people from the Prime Minister's own office who he was working with every day, they had to be in office through that period."

Ms Gray was "already aware of a birthday cake being given to the PM and the circumstances", he said.

He added: "A number of the different elements of this are being categorically denied so I think we need to make sure that what we're talking about is fact rather than a one-sided report and that's exactly what Sue Gray will do and she'll be able to report back on it."

The gathering in the Cabinet Room is said to have lasted for 20-30 minutes - although Downing Street said Mr Johnson only attended for less than 10 minutes.

A spokeswoman for Ms Lytle, who was responsible for Mr Johnson's controversial flat refurbishment, yesterday denied she "attended birthday celebrations for the Prime Minister as a guest", but added she had "entered the Cabinet Room briefly as requested, while waiting to speak with the Prime Minister".

Chancellor Rishi Sunak also attended for a short period of time, but sources insisted that he 'had not been invited'.

Martin Reynolds, who invited over 100 people to a drinks party on May 20 2020, and Mr Johnson's head of communications Jack Doyle, who has previously fallen under fire for attending other lockdown-breaking parties at Downing Street also attended.

At the time of the birthday gathering, the rules stated: "No person may participate in a gathering which takes place in a public or private place (a) outdoors, and consists of more than six persons, or (b) indoors, and consists two or more persons."

There were a list of exceptions - for example, to provide emergency assistance - but birthday gatherings were not one of them.

ITV News also said there was a second gathering that night, where family friends were hosted in the Prime Minister's residence.

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No10 has denied the claim, saying Mr Johnson only hosted a small number of family members outside.

The spokesperson did not clarify how many guests there were.

It comes as the Prime Minister awaits the results of an inquiry into lockdown-breaching parties at No10.

Senior civil servant Sue Gray is compiling the report.

It is understood her team were already aware of the June 19 2020 birthday party allegations and they will not further delay the report's publication.

In March 2020, Mr Johnson congratulated a seven-year-old girl who postponed her birthday party due to coronavirus restrictions.

"Josephine sets a great example to us all by postponing her birthday party until we have sent coronavirus packing," he wrote.

"Together we can beat this. In the meantime let's all wish her happy birthday (twice) whilst washing our hands. #BeLikeJosephine #StayHomeSaveLives"

Then, a week before his birthday gathering, Mr Johnson told the rest of the country to "show restraint" and stick to the guidance at a Downing Street press conference.

"I urge everyone to continue to show restraint and respect the rules which are designed to keep us all safe," he said on June 10.

"It's only because of the restraint that everyone, you all have shown so far, that we are able to move gradually out of this lockdown."

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Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer branded Boris Johnson a "national distraction" and said he has "got to go".

"This is yet more evidence that we've got a Prime Minister who believes that the rules that he made don't apply to him," he said.

"And so we've got a Prime Minister and a Government that spend their whole time mopping up sleaze and deceit.

"Meanwhile, millions of people are struggling to pay their bills and we can't afford to go on with this chaotic, rudderless Government.

"The Prime Minister is a national distraction and he's got to go."

Jo Goodman, co-founder of the Covid-19 Bereaved Family for Justice, called the fresh allegations "completely sickening".

The gathering was held the day before what would have been her dad's birthday - had he not died from Covid.

"Like thousands of others, I remember June 19th vividly," she said.

"It was the day before what would have been my dad's 73rd birthday, shortly after he had passed away from Covid-19. It was a horrible time for my family, but we stuck to the rules, not even being able to hug to comfort each other.

"It's completely sickening that the Prime Minister spent the evening sharing cake with 30 friends indoors and though we're not even surprised any more, it still brings fresh pain. Whilst dozens sang happy birthday to him, families couldn't even sing in memory at their loved ones funerals.

"Regardless of any report, the Prime Minister clearly needs to resign. He's lost all credibility.

"Every day and every fresh scandal pours salt on the wounds of the hundreds of thousands who have lost loved ones. If he had any decency he would do what we and the country is calling for him to do and go."

In a statement about the first party, a No10 spokesperson said: "A group of staff working in No 10 that day gathered briefly in the Cabinet Room after a meeting to wish the Prime Minister a happy birthday.

"He was there for less than ten minutes."

Regarding the allegations about a second gathering, the spokesperson said: "This is totally untrue.

"In line with the rules at the time the Prime Minister hosted a small number of family members outside that evening."

A spokeswoman for Soane Britain, the luxury designer co-founded by Ms Lytle, said: "Lulu was present in Downing Street on June 19 working on the refurbishment.

"Lulu was not invited to any birthday celebrations for the Prime Minister as a guest.

"Lulu entered the Cabinet Room briefly as requested, while waiting to speak with the Prime Minister."

A spokeswoman for Mrs Johnson declined to comment.

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorrie came to the Prime Minister's defence, saying: "So, when people in an office buy a cake in the middle of the afternoon for someone else they are working in the office with and stop for ten minutes to sing happy birthday and then go back to their desks, this is now called a party?"

Following the revelation, former Tory party chair Baroness Warsi told Channel 4 News: "Anybody who was at a party where rules were broken, whether that's the Prime Minister, ministers, special advisers, or civil servants, should resign.

"If you are in a place which makes the rules and you are seen not to be following those rules, then you should fall on your sword."

Leader of the Liberal Democrats Sir Ed Davey called for the Met to investigate the latest allegations to "deliver justice for millions who sacrificed so much during this pandemic".

However, Scotland Yard reiterated its previous statement, saying if Ms Gray's inquiry finds evidence of a potential criminal offence then officers will make a "further consideration" on whether to investigate.