Cabinet Secretary Simon Case has “recused himself” from leading an investigation into alleged parties held across Whitehall during coronavirus restrictions, Downing Street announced on Friday night.
It follows reports that gatherings were held in his own department, which sparked calls for Boris Johnson to remove him from the inquiry.
A Downing Street statement said: “The work will be concluded by Sue Gray, second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
“She will ascertain the facts and present her findings to the Prime Minister.”
The inquiry was then expanded and it was confirmed Mr Case could look at any alleged party if he felt it was relevant.
But the Guido Fawkes website reported on Friday that two Christmas parties were held in Mr Case’s department – the Cabinet Office – in December 2020, when restrictions were in place.
The Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford called for Mr Case to be removed from the investigation and to resign.
Both Mr Johnson and Tory chairman Oliver Dowden have said they were sure Mr Case’s investigation would find no wrongdoing.
And Mr Johnson insisted the public was more interested in other matters such as coronavirus, and suggested the media reporting on lockdown-busting parties had caused the Tories to lose the North Shropshire by-election.
He told broadcasters “what people have been hearing is just a constant litany of stuff about politics and politicians and stuff that isn’t about them”.
But Mr Blackford said: “The Prime Minister’s appointed lead investigator into the Downing Street parties has also been reported to have hosted a party in his office – whilst thousands were forced to spend the Christmas season apart as a result of necessary coronavirus restrictions. He, along with his inquiry report, must go.”
He said it was “vital there be an inquiry led by an independent arbitrator – someone who owes the UK government nothing”, and in a letter to the PM suggested it should be judge-led.
In his letter, he added: “Put simply, the public suspected this was a rigged, limited internal investigation and an attempt to dodge accountability. They now know that the person appointed by you to investigate was also involved.”
The Guido Fawkes website first reported that two gatherings were held in the Cabinet Office in December last year.
The Times reported that one of the parties was held on December 17 – the day before the alleged Christmas party at Downing Street at the centre of the saga.
The newspaper reported that the event was listed in digital calendars as “Christmas party!” and was organised by a private secretary in Mr Case’s team.
A joint investigation by Politico and The Independent claimed Mr Case shared drinks with between 15 and 20 staff at his office and in the waiting room outside the Cabinet Office.
In a statement, the Cabinet Office told Politico and The Independent: “These allegations are categorically untrue.”
And a Cabinet Office source told the PA news agency that a quiz was held on December 17, but insisted it was mostly virtual.
The source said it was “absolutely not a drinks gathering or a party” and that six people who had been working in the department that day took part from their desks.
On whether Mr Case took part, the source said he was not involved in the organisation and did not ask any questions but he was aware it was taking place as he had walked past.
No 10 is expected to issue a statement on the investigation into parties across Whitehall that he was asked to lead by the Prime Minister.
It comes after a string of claims about parties and gatherings held across Whitehall while London was under restrictions limiting people from meeting indoors.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “With each revelation, there is more evidence of a culture of turning a blind eye to the rules. Labour made it clear the person leading the investigation should be uncompromised, free to make an independent judgement. That’s now in serious doubt.”
The Cabinet Office has been contacted for comment.
The two newly alleged gatherings bring the total number reported to 11.
This includes the claim at the centre of the rule-breaking allegations that a party was held for Downing Street staff on December 18.
Officials and advisers reportedly made speeches, enjoyed a cheese board, drank together and exchanged Secret Santa gifts, although the Prime Minister is not thought to have attended.
The event was at the heart of Mr Case’s investigation.
The Department for Transport admitted a “socially distanced gathering in the large open-plan office” was held on December 16.
And Tory London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey has apologised “unreservedly” for attending a gathering at Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) organised by staff on his campaign team on December 14.
The Department for Education has also acknowledged a gathering on December 10.
I want to apologise unreservedly for attending a gathering held by some of my staff in my campaign office last December. 1/3
— Shaun Bailey (@ShaunBaileyUK) December 15, 2021
On December 15, the Prime Minister appeared on contestants’ screens at a quiz but insisted he broke no rules.
An image published by the Sunday Mirror shows the Prime Minister flanked by colleagues, one draped in tinsel and another wearing a Santa hat, in No 10.
Downing Street admitted Mr Johnson “briefly” attended the quiz after the photographic evidence emerged but insisted it was a virtual event.
There are allegations that the Prime Minister’s then-fiancee Carrie Johnson hosted parties in their flat, in what would also have been a breach of Covid guidance, with one such event said to have taken place on November 13 – the night Dominic Cummings departed No 10.
The Mirror, in the newspaper’s original report breaking the story, said that, while the Prime Minister did not attend the alleged No 10 flat party, he did give a farewell speech to an aide on November 27, while the lockdown in England was still in place.
And on May 15 2020, Mr Johnson spent around 15 minutes with staff in the Downing Street garden, telling one aide they deserved a drink for “beating back” coronavirus, the Guardian and Independent reported.
Earlier, party chairman Mr Dowden said he was “confident” that Mr Case’s inquiry into alleged Covid rule-busting parties would “vindicate” Mr Johnson’s assertion that no restrictions were breached.