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.
Late on Tuesday, the government’s story appeared to be 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.
Critics have accused Mr. Johnson of lying and trying to cover up the event. That has been accompanied by the anger of some Britons who, at the time, were prevented from even saying goodbye to dying family members by lockdown rules.
Downing Street has denied that a Christmas party took place, but has not denied that some kind of event took place. 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, but said he was repeatedly assured there was no party. He said the cabinet secretary would investigate and 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.
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 a shame.”
Mr Johnson is scheduled to answer questions on the matter in Parliament on Wednesday afternoon.