Three big problems for Boris Johnson after leaked Christmas party video

Tories fear public won’t listen to Covid instructions from a government that refuses to follow its own rules

Allegra Stratton
Allegra Stratton appeared in the video leaked to ITV News

The fallout for Downing Street over reports that it held a Christmas party during lockdown last year went from bad to worse last night as a video emerged of senior No. 10 staff joking about a Christmas bash.

The clip, which was recorded four days after the alleged 18 December party, shows the then No. 10 spokeswoman Allegra Stratton practising for a press briefing, fielding questions from her colleagues acting as journalists.

In response to a query about reports “on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night”, the aides joke about whether “cheese and wine” counted. “This is recorded,” says Stratton, laughing, in the video leaked to ITV News. “This fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.”

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Boris Johnson has apologised for the footage but Downing Street is still denying that there was a party – “a denial with all of the believability, but none of the charm, of a chocolate-covered toddler insisting they didn’t eat everything in the box”, said The New Statesman’s Stephen Bush.

Perhaps “the most telling thing of all” is that no minister was sent out on the usual morning media round today amid the “angry response” from MPs and members of the public, said Katy Balls in The Spectator. And “in a sign that ministers will struggle to write this one off as a ‘Westminster Bubble’ story, it makes the front of the majority of today’s papers”, she added.

‘Foreshadowing of future downfall’

Labour leader Keir Starmer urged Johnson to come clean and apologise, saying: “To lie and to laugh about those lies is shameful.” SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said the prime minister should resign.

And in a statement, the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK group said there were “simply no words to describe how upsetting and shameful” it was to “hear Boris Johnson’s team laughing about breaking the rules they had made”.

But much of the condemnation has come from Johnson’s own side. Sir Roger Gale, a senior Tory MP, said the controversy “has all the hallmarks of another ‘Barnard Castle’ moment”, referring to the Dominic Cummings scandal that left the Tory polling lead over Labour in tatters. Johnson’s approval rating is now at its worst since he was elected two years ago.

In Prime Ministers Questions this afternoon, Johnson claimed he was “furious to see that clip” and apologised “unreservedly for the offence that it gave up and down the country”. But he once again said he had been assured there was no party and no Covid rules were broken.

The cabinet secretary has been asked to establish the facts and, if rules were broken, disciplinary action will be taken, he added.

No. 10 staff “hope that the fuss will fade quickly”, said Matthew d’Ancona in the London Evening Standard, but this is a “vain hope”. The electorate will not stand for a “one rule for you, one rule for us” government. For “all its comic value”, the Christmas party “could also be a deadly serious foreshadowing of future downfall”, he concluded.

North Shropshire vote

Next week’s North Shropshire by-election will be the first electoral test of whether or not the story has hit home with the public. The seat, which has been held by Tories since it was created in 1832, was vacated when Owen Paterson stood down over allegations that he broke lobbying rules.

After interviewing local constituents, The Observer’s Andrew Anthony said most people he spoke to “had only a sketchy sense of the case against Paterson”. But what many cited as a “greater cause for concern” was that No. 10 had broken the rules on Christmas parties last year. “It was the double standard that riled them rather than the misuse of public office,” he said.

The Covid factor

As new restrictions were brought in last month to slow the spread of the new Omicron variant, Professor Chris Whitty admitted his “greatest worry at the moment” was whether the public would accept fresh curbs on their freedoms. “Can we still take people with us?” was the question from the chief medical officer for England.

The BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg suggested the latest leaked footage might have an impact on the answer to this question. Tory MP Charles Walker said: “The No. 10 party means that any future lockdowns will be advisory, whatever the law says.”

Bush in The New Statesman argued that these ramifications for Covid are bigger than the political fallout. Ministers are today refusing to “go on air to communicate important public health messages for fear of being asked about the video” and they might also feel unable to risk tighter restrictions without further scrutiny of their own behaviour. “As we head into an uncertain few weeks, the government may well be fighting Omicron with both hands tied behind its back,” he said.

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