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Boris Johnson’s staff denied there was a 2020 Christmas party — except they joked about it on camera

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson outside Downing Street in London on Dec. 8, 2021. (Tom Nicholson/Reuters)
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LONDON — Britain is obsessed by a Christmas party, which either did or did not happen at 10 Downing Street last year, in the middle of a strict coronavirus lockdown, as hospitals filled with the sick and dying.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson says there was no holiday party, that no rules were broken, despite a scoop by the Mirror, a British tabloid, saying that yes, Virginia, there was a party, with guests “knocking back glasses of wine during a Christmas quiz and a Secret Santa while the rest of the country was forced to stay at home.”

Now there’s leaked video, not of the alleged party itself, but of a mock news conference staged by a communications aide to Johnson, about the party, four days after the alleged festivities. That aide resigned Wednesday.

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The story has become a scandal in part because it plays into assertions that Johnson and his government cannot be trusted and that there is one set of rules for the people and another for the rulers. The British take their very merry holiday parties very seriously, and it grates to learn that 10 Downing Street — the prime minister’s official residence and office, the British version of the White House — might have been whooping it up as the rest of the country was told to hunker down.

The revelations coincided with the government’s announcement of new restrictions to curb the spread of the omicron variant.

With 568 confirmed cases of the variant in Britain, doubling every two to three days, Johnson called for people in England to work from home if they can, wear face masks in public and show proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test to enter nightclubs and other venues with large crowds. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can set their own rules.

Pressed at a news conference Wednesday on how the government can expect people to follow the new guidance, after his own staff may have broken rules, Johnson said, “The British public can see the vital importance of the medical information that we’re giving and can see the need to take it to heart and to act on it.”

Earlier in the day, Johnson opened a particularly boisterous session of Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons with an apology. “I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing Number 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,” he said.

But the prime minister added that he had been “repeatedly assured” that there was no party and that no covid rules had been broken.

Boris Johnson apologized after a video from Dec. 2020 was published by ITV showing staff talking about an alleged party at Downing Street. (Video: Parliament TV via Storyful)

He announced that he had asked his cabinet secretary to investigate and promised, “It goes without saying that if those rules were broken, then there will be disciplinary action for all those involved.”

That hardly settled the matter.

Douglas Ross, a leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, suggested that if Johnson was misleading Parliament, he should resign. “If the prime minister knew about this party last December, knew about this party last week, and was still denying it, then that is the most serious allegation,” Ross said.

The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, told the prime minister his apology “raises more questions than answers.”

Starmer charged that “millions of people” who followed the rules last Christmas “now think the prime minister was taking them for fools, that they were lied to.”

The Labour lawmaker said Johnson’s staff, “knew there was a party, they knew it was against the rules, they knew they couldn’t admit it, and they thought it was funny. It is obvious what happened.”

Johnson’s critics hammered away on their assertion that 10 Downing Street was partying while ordinary people were denied visits to nursing homes and to see sick relatives in hospitals. 

“It’s one rule for them and another for the rest of us,” David Lammy, the Labour Party’s point person on foreign affairs, told the BBC.

On Dec. 18, 2020 — the day many British media outlets have been claiming the party took place — indoor gatherings of two or more people were banned in London unless “reasonably necessary” for work. The official guidance also stated, “You must not have a work Christmas lunch or party where that is a primarily social activity.”

The following day, Johnson announced a further tightening of rules, amid concern about another variant spreading at the time, effectively canceling Christmas for millions.

Thousands of people were fined for violations on gatherings over the course of last year, according to figures from the National Police Chiefs' Council and reported by the BBC. Between March 2020 and January 2021, police issued 2,982 fines in England to those participating in gatherings inside a house or indoor space; there were 250 fines issued in England to those hosting a gathering of more than 30 people.

On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Police Service said in a statement that it would not initiate an investigation into possible Downing Street parties “based on the absence of evidence and in line with our policy not to investigate retrospective breaches.”

The leaked video clip, obtained by ITV News, shows a mock news conference staged by Allegra Stratton, then a top spokesperson for the prime minister, answering questions lobbed at her by fellow staffers, in a practice round as they prepared for the real deal.

The clip is not definitive proof, but it is damning — as it appears to suggest that staffers knew all about the party and were cracking jokes about it.

Asked whether there was such a fete, Stratton replies in the clip: “This fictional party was a business meeting — and it was not socially distanced.”

Pressed for an answer in the rehearsal by Johnson’s top aide, who was playing the role of a journalist, Stratton says, “I went home.” Everyone laughs.

Asked whether the prime minister would condone such a party, Stratton asks the room: “What’s the answer?”

Finally, another aide jokes that “it wasn’t a party; it was cheese and wine,” and Stratton laughs and asks: “Is cheese and wine all right?”

Late on Wednesday, Stratton gave a tearful statement as she resigned from the government. Most recently, she was in charge of publicity for the global climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, last month.

“My remarks seemed to make light of the rules, rules that everyone were doing everything to obey. That was never my intention. I will regret those remarks for the rest of my days,” Stratton said. “I understand the anger and frustration that people feel. To all of you who lost loved ones and endured intolerable loneliness and who struggled with your businesses, I am truly sorry.”

The images from the mock news conference were plastered across the British papers on Wednesday.

“A Sick Joke” ran a front-page headline in the Daily Mail; the Metro newspaper scolded the “No. 10 Party Clowns.”

“It’s disgusting,” Rivka Gottlieb, who lost her father in the first lockdown, told the BBC. “It shows the utter contempt they hold the British public in,” she said.

During the first lockdown, in 2020, Dominic Cummings, then Johnson’s top aide, flouted strict rules and damaged public trust in the government’s handling of the pandemic. He drove six hours north, to shelter at his family farm, after he and his wife were infected with the virus. Later, he drove to a nearby castle, known for sightseeing, to test his eyesight, he claimed.

Cummings weighed in on Twitter on Wednesday, suggesting that the internal inquiry the prime minister ordered also look at parties held at Johnson’s apartment, including on the day Cummings was forced out.

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