LONDON – For a week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has denied damaging claims that his staff violated lockdown rules by holding a party last Christmas when such holidays were banned under government coronavirus restrictions.
On Tuesday night, the government’s story was weakened when a video surfaced of senior officials joking about such a party four days after they had reportedly gathered to eat sandwiches, drink wine and play party games in Downing Street. .
The revelations have rocked the Johnson government, just as Britain and the rest of the world enter a second Christmas season hit by the emergence of a new variant and faced with anger and frustration from exhausted citizens.
The furor claimed its first casualty Wednesday when Allegra Stratton, a senior assistant, resigned. Ms. Stratton acknowledged that the comments she made on the video, at a time when she was a spokesperson for Johnson, seemed to downplay the “rules that people were doing their best to obey.”
Most recently, Ms Stratton had been a spokesperson for the British government at the United Nations global climate summit in Glasgow known as COP26.
Later on Wednesday, Britain’s Johnson announced major new restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus, urging people to work from home and introducing a vaccine passport for some enclosed places – measures his government had resisted for during long time.
Critics have accused Johnson of lying and trying to cover up the Downing Street event last Christmas. There has also been anger on the part of some Britons who, at the time, were prevented by lockdown rules from even saying goodbye to dying family members.
Downing Street has denied that a Christmas party took place, but has not denied that there was some kind of event. Johnson has said that any meeting that took place followed Covid protocols.
In his weekly question-and-answer session in Parliament on Wednesday, Johnson apologized for the video and said he was “sick and furious” about it. But he said he was repeatedly assured that no party was held. He said Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, who is the head of the civil service, would investigate and that if lockdown rules were violated, disciplinary action would be taken.
Amid mounting pressure on the prime minister, even some of his own lawmakers publicly asked to clarify his story. On Tuesday night, the Metropolitan Police, the force that covers London, said they were reviewing the video.
Reports of the Downing Street party, which first appeared in the Daily Mirror, did not suggest that Johnson himself had attended any celebration. The video released by ITV, showing staff members holding a mock press conference with questions about the implications of hosting such a party, also does not fully confirm that an event occurred.
But the video shows that senior staff members were aware of the risk of being asked about a party in Downing Street and did not get a credible answer. The video shows Allegra Stratton, who was then Johnson’s press secretary, in a rehearsal for a press conference, with a Downing Street colleague playing a journalist. At the time, Stratton was preparing to give White House-style press conferences, although that idea was eventually abandoned.
EXCLUSIVE: Video obtained by ITV News shows Downing Street staff joking about a Christmas party on December 18 last year.
No 10 have spent the last week denying that any rule was broken. This new evidence calls that into question. pic.twitter.com/nKYK0tG0dQ
– Paul Brand (@PaulBrandITV) December 7, 2021
When asked about reports of a Christmas party in Downing Street, he laughed and replied, “I went home,” before asking, “What is the answer?”
“Is the cheese and wine okay? It was a business meeting, ”Ms Stratton can be heard saying. “This fictitious party was a business meeting,” he continued, before laughing and adding, “And it wasn’t socially estranged.”
Opponents have seized on the video as further proof of a familiar and damaging criticism: that the conservative-led government applies one set of rules to itself and another to the rest of the population. That was deeply damaging early in the pandemic when faith in the government was seriously undermined after Johnson’s former senior adviser Dominic Cummings traveled hundreds of miles to his parents’ home during a lockdown.
In response to the video, the leader of the opposition Labor Party, Keir Starmer, accused the government of misleading the public. “People across the country followed the rules even when it meant being separated from their families, locked up and, tragically for many, unable to say goodbye to loved ones,” he said.
“They had a right to expect that the government was doing the same,” he added. “Lying and laughing at those lies is shameful.” No timetable has yet been given for the investigation to be carried out by Mr. Case, the cabinet secretary. His mandate also does not extend to investigating reports on other parties in Downing Street, including one in which the Daily Mirror claims Johnson himself spoke.