Boris Johnson is facing a furious backlash after footage emerged of Number 10 officials joking and laughing about a Christmas party in Downing Street last year during a time of strict COVID restrictions.
In a video recording of what is reported to be a rehearsal for a TV media briefing, senior Number 10 aides were filmed talking and laughing about a Christmas party.
They also jokingly referred to a “business meeting” and a “cheese and wine” event.
The footage, obtained by ITV News, is said to be from 22 December last year – four days after an alleged Christmas party took place in Number 10.
The Metropolitan Police said they are aware of the footage in relation to alleged breaches of coronavirus restrictions.
The prime minister has been repeatedly quizzed about what was reported to have been a large party on Friday 18 December last year.
According to newspaper reports, around “40 or 50” people are alleged to have crammed “cheek by jowl” in a room in Number 10.
Just two days earlier, on 16 December, London had been put into Tier 3 of coronavirus restrictions, which prevented mixing indoors with people not in your household.
Mr Johnson has insisted that COVID rules were followed “at all times” in Number 10, although the prime minister on Tuesday once again dodged questions about whether or not a party had taken place.
‘Would the prime minister condone having a Christmas party?’
In the footage, a voice said to be senior Number 10 adviser Ed Oldfield is heard asking what appear to be mock questions to Allegra Stratton, the prime minister’s former press secretary.
“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 is asked.
“I went home,” she replies, before laughing and adding: “Hold on, hold on, erm.”
Ms Stratton is then asked: “Would the prime minister condone having a Christmas party?”
She laughs again, before asking: “What’s the answer?”, to which a voice suggests: “It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine.”
“Is cheese and wine alright? It was a business meeting,” Ms Stratton adds, to which someone replies: “No… joking.”
A laughing Ms Stratton continues: “This is recorded. This fictional party was a business meeting… and it was not socially distanced.”
In December last year, Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood defended attending a 27-person dinner as it was a business function, even though the event was initially advertised as a “Christmas party”.
He later apologised for having “muddied” the government’s messaging on coronavirus rules.
The leaked footage was recorded in Downing Street’s £2.6m White House-style briefing room, which was constructed under the prime minister’s plans to hold daily televised news briefings.
These would have been similar to the regular televised White House briefings for US media and followed the government’s daily COVID news conferences during the height of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.
However, the Number 10 plans for daily televised briefings were scrapped in April despite former journalist Ms Stratton having been hired to front them at a cost of around £125,000 a year.
She has since been moved to a role as the prime minister’s spokeswoman for the COP26 climate change summit.
PM urged to ‘come clean and apologise’
In response to the leaked footage, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called on Mr Johnson to “come clean and apologise”.
“People across the country followed the rules even when that meant being separated from their families, locked down and – tragically for many – unable to say goodbye to their loved ones,” he said.
“They had a right to expect that the government was doing the same. To lie and to laugh about those lies is shameful.
“The prime minister now needs to come clean and apologise. It cannot be one rule for the Conservatives and another for everyone else.”
Labour’s shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, described the video as “utterly stomach turning” and highlighted how the UK reported 691 COVID deaths on 22 December last year.
The SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, told Sky News the prime minister “has to resign”.
He said: “Now we know that Boris Johnson, Number 10, his government, breached their own COVID rules, had a party, while telling the rest of us we had to behave, telling everyone else that they couldn’t see their loved ones, telling everyone else that we had to do our bit.
“And, yet, he was the prime minister really demonstrating it was one rule for all of us and another rule for him.”
‘You can’t say there wasn’t a party because there clearly was’
Senior Tory backbencher Sir Roger Gale told Sky News it was “clear there are some very serious questions that are going to have to be answered and fast”.
“This is like something out of The Thick of It, if you wrote it, people wouldn’t believe it,” he added.
“Boris Johnson has always been his own man and done his own thing in his own man. I think he has a certain amount of explaining to do.”
Conservative MP Stephen Hammond said there would be “real pressure on Number 10” to “clear up the story”.
“You can’t say there wasn’t a party because there clearly was,” he told LBC Radio. “I share a sense of shock that it was allowed to happen.”
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”.
“Leaders set the culture of an organisation, and the PM has set a culture where breaches of the rules are laughed about and the rules only apply to some,” they added.
“Is it any wonder we’ve had over 160,000 deaths when the people in charge joke about it like it doesn’t apply to them?”
Footage to form part of police ‘considerations’
The Metropolitan Police are already considering complaints that Mr Johnson and Number 10 staff held parties in the run-up to last Christmas, in breach of COVID rules.
They said in a statement on Tuesday night: “We are aware of footage obtained by ITV News relating to alleged breaches of the Health Protection Regulations at a government building in December 2020.
“It is our policy not to routinely investigate retrospective breaches of the COVID-19 regulations, however the footage will form part of our considerations.”
During December 2020, police were issuing £10,000 fines and breaking up office parties in London as a breach of coronavirus restrictions.
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “There was no Christmas party. COVID rules have been followed at all times.”