Boris Johnson is facing calls to “come clean” about an alleged Christmas party at No 10 during lockdown restrictions last year as the Government refused to send a minister to defend its position on television.
Leaked footage from No 10’s £2.6 million press briefing room emerged on Monday night which showed former press secretary Allegra Stratton laughing as she appeared to rehearse answers to questions over a lockdown-busting Christmas party.
The video, which is reported to be from December 22 last year, refers to a party on “Friday” – which would have been December 18, the same day The Daily Mirror reported there was a staff party where games were played, food and drinks were served, and revelries went on past midnight.
Watch @PaulBrandITV's full News at Ten report into a leaked recording which shows senior Downing Street staff joking about a Christmas party held last year in London as the capital was under Tier 3 restrictions
— ITV News (@itvnews) December 7, 2021
No 10 initially did not say the reports were inaccurate but said all rules had been followed, before later denying any party had taken place.
But the emergence of the video will put Boris Johnson under increasing pressure as he faces Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.
The challenge for Downing Street was laid bare by no Cabinet minister being offered to represent the Government in morning broadcast interviews, and there were questions over whether a suggested press conference to mark one year since the first coronavirus vaccine was delivered would go ahead.
There was no Government minister available to speak to #BBCBreakfast at 0730 this morning.
— BBC Breakfast (@BBCBreakfast) December 8, 2021
As well as Health Secretary Sajid Javid pulling out of national interviews, vaccines minister Maggie Throup is understood to have pulled out of a planned round of regional television interviews.
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary David Lammy called on the Prime Minister to “come clean” with the British public.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It really is quite unacceptable that this is seen as something that is sort of humorous, or something that isn’t serious, or something that suggests that there can be one rule for a Prime Minister and those in No 10 and another rule for the British public.”
"A serious kick in the face, it's outrageous"
Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy tells #BBCBreakfast a video showing senior government staff joking about a Christmas party held last year 'damages public health'https://t.co/ynlR6sYcOI pic.twitter.com/ZweSHOaReF
— BBC Breakfast (@BBCBreakfast) December 8, 2021
Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “What I know is that the Prime Minister said that no rules were broken. And nobody’s suggesting that he was at this party.”
But a former vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs has said the Government is likely to now find it “almost impossible” to introduce “very proscriptive” Covid-19 restrictions due to the saga.
Sir Charles Walker, MP for Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, told Times Radio: “I think now that, going forward, any measures will be advisory. I think it would be very difficult to enshrine them in law and then once again ask our poor police forces to enforce them.”
He added: “To be very proscriptive about this now, particularly as we’ve had such a successful vaccine rollout… is much more difficult, and was always going to be much more difficult. And the events of the last 24 hours make it probably almost impossible now.”
Former minister Tracey Crouch, MP for Chatham and Aylesford, demanded an apology, Kent Online reported.
“I am fuming! My constituents have every right to be angry,” she said.
“Their memories of lost loved ones are traumatised knowing that they died alone, first and last Christmases passed by, and many spent what is usually a special day by themselves.
“I am not even going to begin to justify or defend a party in Downing Street. We all deserve a fulsome explanation and apology and swiftly”.
Tory peer and former Conservative Party chairwoman Sayeeda Warsi said all those present at any party should resign.
She tweeted: “Every minister, parliamentarian & staffer at the #downingstreetparty must resign NOW.
“No ifs no buts. The rule of law is a fundamental value, the glue that hold us together as a nation.
“Once that is trashed by those in power the very essence of our democracy is at stake.”
While chairman of the Commons Education Committee and Tory MP for Harlow Robert Halfon said: “I certainly think that those who were doing the video should apologise for the insensitivity of it when people were suffering and struggling all through that time.”
But he stopped short of calling for the Prime Minister himself to apologise.
Asked about the row, NHS England medical director Stephen Powis told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “It’s important the public follow the guidelines, I think they have done that magnificently.”
In the footage obtained by ITV News, Ms Stratton and adviser Ed Oldfield, along with other aides, were filmed joking about a “fictional” Downing Street party.
Mr Oldfield can be heard asking Ms Stratton: “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night, do you recognise those reports?”
Ms Stratton replied “I went home” before appearing to consider what the correct answer should be.
During the rehearsal, filmed as part of a subsequently-abandoned plan for Ms Stratton to lead televised press briefings, one aide is heard saying: “It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine.”
“Is cheese and wine all right? It was a business meeting,” Ms Stratton replied, to laughter in the room.
Ms Stratton then noted “this is recorded”, adding: “This fictional party was a business meeting … and it was not socially distanced.”
The Metropolitan Police confirmed officers are reviewing the leaked video in relation to “alleged breaches” of coronavirus regulations.
In response to ITV’s report, a Downing Street spokesman said: “There was no Christmas party. Covid rules have been followed at all times.”
Ministers are yet to explain how the alleged bash complied with the rules in place at the time, despite coming under pressure since an initial report in the Daily Mirror.
The newspaper said two events took place in No 10 in the run-up to the festive season last year, including Mr Johnson giving a speech at a leaving do during November’s lockdown.
The other was said to be the staff party in December.
At the time, the Tier 3 rules explicitly banned work Christmas lunches and parties where it is “a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted”.
Prime Minister’s Questions
At Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson said: “I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing No 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures, and I can understand how infuriating it must be to think that people who have been setting the rules have not been following the rules because I was also furious to see that clip.
“I apologise unreservedly for the offence that it has caused up and down the country and I apologise for the impression that it gives.
“But I repeat that I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken, and that is what I have been repeatedly assured.”
The Prime Minister’s intervention followed a week of official insistence that no party took place on December 18 2020, when London was under Tier 3 restrictions – despite reports staff drank alcohol and exchanged Secret Santa gifts.
Downing Street’s official line has now shifted with the announcement of the Case inquiry, with the Prime Minister’s press secretary declining to repeat the statement that “there was no party”.
She said “it wouldn’t be right to comment further” while Mr Case was investigating.
Downing Street would not confirm whether or not Mr Case was at the December 18 event, although officials insisted “due diligence” was carried out before announcing the investigation.
Number 10 would not give a timetable for Mr Case’s investigation to conclude but the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said “we want it to be as soon as possible”.
The spokesman confirmed that Ms Stratton was still employed as an aide – she has been the spokeswoman for the Cop26 climate summit – and the Prime Minister still has confidence in her.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the Prime Minister’s apology “raises more questions than answers” as he had been “caught red-handed”.
“Millions of people now think the Prime Minister was taking them for fools, that they were lied to. They are right aren’t they?”
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