We were meandering towards the end of lunch in a vast, plush basement near Piccadilly Circus when Charlotte, the restaurant manager, told us that London was going into semi-lockdown two days later.
“No more business meetings for you,” she said.
Under Tier 2 restrictions in force until Wednesday, you could visit a restaurant or a bar serving food but only with members of your household or support bubble. If your party included anyone else, you had to eat outside, not a comfortable experience in early December when space heaters usually don’t work.
Restaurants stopped asking questions after the first few days but as Sky News presenter Kay Burley discovered this month when she celebrated her 60th birthday in central London, breaking the rules can have serious consequences. Burley has been taken off air for six months and two of her colleagues who were at the party will be staying at home for three months.
Under a loophole in the rules, however, people were allowed to meet in a restaurant for business, so that every lunch in London became a business meeting. An informal etiquette developed within a few weeks so that business meetings over lunch were kept well below six people and over dinner usually to just two.
Even outdoors, no more than six people from different households are allowed to meet under Tier 2 restrictions, apart from weddings and funerals. But last Tuesday, hours before London was moved up to Tier 3, Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood joined 26 others for the Iraq Britain Business Council's (IBBC) Christmas party.
The dinner at the Cavalry and Guards Club on Piccadilly was also attended by Emma Nicholson, a Conservative peer who serves as Boris Johnson's trade envoy for Kazakhstan.
Ellwood, a former soldier who chairs the Commons defence committee, said the event was a fully Covid-compliant business meeting rather than a conventional Christmas party.
I am sorry that coverage of my well-intentioned attendance may have muddled the government's clear message as we head to Christmas
“It was the wrong word. There was nothing Christmassy about it at all,” he said. “It was a Covid-complaint event. We have troops out in Iraq, the security situation is deteriorating and I was invited.”
He said he “gleaned extremely useful intelligence” about events on the ground in the Middle East at what he called a “business reception/dinner” and offered a somewhat huffy apology.
“I am sorry that coverage of my well-intentioned attendance may have muddled the government’s clear message as we head to Christmas,” he said.
“While the event was fully Covid compliant – perceptions count. Something I will be more conscious of in conducting my portfolio duties during the difficult months ahead.”
He might have been more conscious of it on Monday, the day before the event, when he warned in the House of Commons against easing coronavirus restrictions for Christmas.
“My concern is letting down our guard for five days over Christmas could be very dangerous indeed. Could I ask the secretary of state [for health, Matt Hancock] to review those conditions which I think were put together some time ago, come back to the house and present an updated version so we don’t begin the New Year with a third wave,” he said.
Ellwood was celebrated as a hero in 2018 when he attempted to offer medical assistance to Keith Palmer, a police constable who was stabbed to death in the Palace of Westminster by terrorist Khalid Masood. But nobody came to Ellwood's assistance on Thursday after the news of his dinner at the Cavalry and Guards Club was reported.
"Having dinner outside of the rules with a large number of people is a breach of the regulations," home secretary Priti Patel said.
“There are fixed-penalty notices. I don’t know the details as to where this happened or the location, but I’m sure, as it is a breach, that will be followed up.”
With two thirds of England’s population under Tier 3 restrictions from Saturday, few public figures will have to worry about what defines a “business meeting” because no restaurants, pubs or gentlemen’s clubs will be open. But with restrictions likely to remain in place for months while the vaccine is rolled out and an under-stimulated public on the lookout for every hint of hypocrisy, Ellwood is unlikely to be the last MP to be called to account for his behaviour.