Boris Johnson tried to quell mounting fury over the ‘illegal’ No10 Christmas party today ordering an investigation by the Cabinet Secretary and apologising for a bombshell video of giggling aides.
Mr Johnson opened a raucous PMQs by saying sorry for the footage of his former press secretary and other staff joking about the gathering which happened on December 18 last year, during lockdown.
He said the government’s top civil servant Simon Case – who is not believed to have attended the party – would be looking into the situation.
Mr Johnson said he was ‘sickened’ and ‘disciplinary action’ would be taken against any staff found to have breached the regulations, but insisted he had been ‘repeatedly’ assured the rules had been followed.
The premier appealed for the public to focus on the threat from the Omicron strain – with Plan B measures expected to be confirmed as early as this afternoon. But Keir Starmer shot back that Mr Johnson had lost the ‘moral authority’ to impose restrictions.
Tory MPs also hammered the PM by branding the Covid switch a ‘diversionary tactic’ from the No10 party row, while Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross warned he will have to resign if he knew about the gathering when he issued denials.
Meanwhile, former chief aide Dominic Cummings has waded in by alleging that there was a party in Mr Johnson’s grace-and-favour flat on November 13 last year, the day he was ousted from Downing Street.
Mr Case will also look at claimed former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson hosted a bash during the festive season, but significantly he will not consider any other events – meaning nothing the PM personally attended is in scope.
Kicking off the clashes in the House, Mr Johnson said: ‘I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing No 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.
‘I apologise unreservedly for the offence that it has caused up and down the country and I apologise for the impression that it gives.
‘But I repeat that I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken, and that is what I have been repeatedly assured.
‘I have asked the cabinet secretary to establish all the facts and to report back as soon as possible – and it goes without saying that if those rules were broken then there will be disciplinary action for all those involved.’
Mr Johnson said No10 would hand over any relevant evidence to the police if they ask for it.
But the Labour Leader said: ‘An internal investigation into what happened – the situation is as clear as day. I thought last week was bad enough.
‘Surely the Prime Minister hasn’t now going to start pretending that the first he knew about this was last night? Surely we have all watched the video of the Prime Minister’s staff including his personal spokesperson.
‘They 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 was happened. Ant and Dec are ahead of the Prime Minister on this. The Prime Minister has been caught red-handed. Why doesn’t he end the investigation right now by just admitting it?’
Mr Johnson replied: ‘Because I have been repeatedly assured that no rules were broken. I understand public anxiety about this… but there is a risk of doing a grave injustice to people who have frankly obeyed the rules.
‘That is why the Cabinet Secretary will be conducting an investigation, and that is why there will be requisite disciplinary action if necessary.’
In one brutal attack, Sir Keir contrasted Mr Johnson’s leadership with that of the Queen.
‘Her Majesty the Queen sat alone when she marked the passing of the man she’d been married to for 73 years. Leadership, sacrifice – that’s what gives leaders the moral authority to lead,’ the Labour leader said.
‘Does the Prime Minister think he has the moral authority to lead and to ask the British people to stick to the rules?’
Mr Johnson accused Sir Keir of trying to ‘muddy the waters, to confuse the public and to cause needless confusion about the guidance’ during the pandemic.
Conservative MPs have been turning on the PM, with demands for him to provide an ‘explanation’ and even warnings that misleading parliament on what happened will be a ‘resigning matter’.
One government source told MailOnline that the situation was an ‘absolute joke’, adding: ‘A friend said to me ”you look like a bunch of c***s”. It was hard to argue.’
Another MP said of Mr Johnson’s leadership: ‘I’m tired of it. He has to go. Clean sweep. It’s unsustainable’. A third said: ‘It confirms my suspicion of the sheer arrogance and hypocrisy of those orchestrating lockdown measures.’
Baroness Warsi, a former Cabinet minister turned critic, said ‘every minister, parliamentarian and staffer’ at the alleged party ‘must resign now’. And former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said his stance was not ‘remotely defensible’.
Mr Johnson had hoped to grab the news agenda this week with a slew of crime measures, after weeks of torrid sleaze headlines.
But Health Secretary Sajid Javid pulled out out of interviews this morning following the emergence of the footage showing the PM’s former press secretary Allegra Stratton laughing about the lockdown-busting gathering last year.
As bereaved families branded the revelations a ‘bullet to the chest’, Scotland Yard is set to probe the exchanges which took place during a rehearsal for a media briefing.
Attorney General Suella Braverman was seen going into the building this morning, although it is not clear whether her visit was related. Mr Javid has also entered, ignoring questions about why he ducked interviews.
Extraordinarily, there are signs that the government is preparing to announce a move to ‘Plan B’ Covid restrictions to combat the Omicron strain – including blanket orders to work from home, more mask-wearing as early as today.
Such a shift had not been expected before the end of this week, and Mr Johnson immediately faced accusations he is deploying the ‘dead cat’ tactic – making a big newsworthy announcement in order to distract attention from another crisis.
Tory MP William Wragg said in the House: ‘Covid passes will not increase uptake of the vaccine but will create a segregated society.
‘Is my Right Honourable Friend the PM aware that very few will be convinced by this diversionary tactic?’
Mr Johnson replied: ‘No decisions will be taken without consulting the Cabinet.’
Speaker Lindsay Hoyle said he had not yet been notified that there will be a ministerial statement on Covid later. ‘It must be here first,’ Sir Lindsay warned.
BBC Breakfast took the extraordinary step of empty-chairing Mr Javid this morning as vaccines minister Maggie Throup also pulled out of her planned round of regional television interviews. On ITV’s Good Morning Britain, host Susanna Reid swiped that the government was ‘gaslighting’ by pretending there is not any need to answer questions.
The footage of Ms Stratton was filmed on December 22 last year – four days after the alleged ‘boozy’ party and when London was under strict Tier 3 coronavirus curbs. The revelation follows a week of tortured denials from No 10 that there was a ‘party’ – even though dozens of staff allegedly exchanged ‘secret Santa’ gifts and drank past midnight at an event said to have included party games.
In the Commons, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford demanded Mr Johnson’s resignation, saying he ‘can no longer lead on the most pressing issue facing these islands’.
Mr Blackford said: ‘Trust and leadership is a matter of life and death. Downing Street wilfully broke the rules and mocked the sacrifices we have all made, shattering the public trust. The Prime Minister is responsible for losing the trust of the people. He can no longer lead on the most pressing issue facing these islands.
‘The Prime Minister has a duty, the only right and moral choice left to him: it is for his resignation. When can we expect it?’
But Mr Johnson replied: ‘The party opposite and indeed the other party opposite are going to continue to play politics. I am going to get on with the job.’
Scottish Tory leader Mr Ross told STV News Mr Johnson had ‘serious questions to answer on this issue’.
He said he trusted the PM, but added: ‘When he made statements last week they seem to be very different to what he is saying this week and the video evidence that has emerged.
‘That is a really serious issue for him, for his Government and for everyone who was involved in whatever happened in Downing Street last December.
‘The public deserve answers because the public have sacrificed so much during this pandemic and they view this extremely dimly. They are understandably angry about what has happened and the fact that this has been in some ways hidden since last year.’
Mr Ross told BBC Scotland: ‘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.
‘There is absolutely no way you can mislead parliament and think you could get off with that.’
New plans for Britons to work from home and for offices to be closed are being drawn up by the Government to curb a surge in Omicron variant case numbers over the festive period,
Mr Johnson is on the verge of pushing the button on ‘Plan B’ measures, with a meeting of the Covid O Cabinet sub-committee due this afternoon.
Some backbenchers had suggested that Mr Johnson’s could be forced to resign unless he ‘holds his hands up’ because of the video, which calls into question his insistence that all the rules had been followed over the No10 Christmas bash.
Former minister Tracey Crouch, MP for Chatham and Aylesford, demanded an apology.
‘I am fuming! My constituents have every right to be angry,’ she told Kent Online.
‘Their memories of lost loved ones are traumatised knowing that they died alone, first and last Christmases passed by, and many spent what is usually a special day by themselves.
‘I am not even going to begin to justify or defend a party in Downing Street. We all deserve a fulsome explanation and apology and swiftly.’
Conservative Sir Roger Gale said today that the situation bore ‘all the hallmarks of another ‘Barnard Castle’ moment’ – a reference to the Prime Minister’s former aide driving 260 miles during strict lockdown conditions last year.
He said: ‘This is like something out of The Thick Of It. If you wrote it, people wouldn’t believe it. Boris Johnson has always been his own man and done his own thing in his own way. I think he has a certain amount of explaining to do. This is no laughing matter. I want PM to come to the dispatch box and say there either was a party or wasn’t. There has to be an explanation by lunchtime today’.
Even Ant and Dec got in on the act last night, mocking Boris Johnson over the Downing Street Christmas party on I’m a Celebrity 2021 and saying: ‘Evening Prime Minister… for now.’
Police are yet to launch a criminal investigation – but will be reviewing the footage before a decision is taken. It is understood that a senior officer looking at the matter will now consider the contents of the video in the coming days.
‘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’, a Met spokesman said. ‘It is our policy not to routinely investigate retrospective breaches of the Covid-19 regulations, however the footage will form part of our considerations’.
BBC Radio 4’s Today programme said Mr Javid was scheduled to feature this morning, but cancelled after the footage emerged.
Presenter Nick Robinson said: ‘We were expecting to speak to the Health Secretary Sajid Javid this morning but we were told just a few minutes after that video emerged that no minister would be available to speak on the programme today.’ Mr Javid was also due on outlets such as BBC1, Sky News and Times Radio.
The damning clip, which was leaked to ITV News, shows Ms Stratton and aides joking about cheese and wine and suggesting the ‘fictional’ event was ‘not socially distanced’. Miss Stratton, who is still on the No 10 payroll earning £125,000 a year, was practising for planned TV media briefings, which were later axed.
At the time of the alleged event, on December 18, Christmas parties were outlawed – on pain of £10,000 fines – and many families were even barred from visiting dying loved ones. Mixing indoors with people from other households was banned in the capital.
No 10 was still insisting last night that there had been ‘no Christmas party’ and that coronavirus rules were followed at all times. But ministers were aghast at the crass video, with one privately describing it as ‘appalling’.
Insiders fear the release of the toxic footage could unleash a wave of public anger, similar to the fury over the trip to Barnard Castle by Dominic Cummings at the height of the first lockdown.
A Downing Street insider acknowledged the video was a ‘disaster’, adding: ‘No 10 aides laugh at their party as thousands cry for their dead.’
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss insisted ‘we do follow the rules on Covid’ as she was questioned about the alleged party at a Chatham House event.
She said: ‘As to alleged events in Number 10, I don’t know the detail of what happened.
‘I know that the Prime Minister’s spokesman answered those questions in detail yesterday and I am sure there will be further discussion of that issue.’
Asked why citizens should trust an administration that did not follow the rules, she added: ‘We do follow the rules on Covid.’
But ‘I’m not aware of the precise circumstances and I know the Prime Minister’s spokesman has addressed that issue’.
One Tory MP told MailOnline that most colleagues were ‘waiting to see what the PM says at PMQs’.
‘He needs to come out today and just be straightforward and say what happened. Not answering won’t work. Maybe they are planning to fire some people.’
The backbencher pointed out that future inquiries will uncover details anyway. ‘If you have done something wrong, go to parliament and explain it. You have much more chance of getting away with it.
‘The cover-up is the thing that gets you. So you have got to be brutally honest.’
‘They won’t be the only people to have an illegal party at that time, but you don’t have an illegal party in No10 do you?’
The MP also suggested that Mr Cummings and his allies might have been involved in leaking the video. ‘It has to be someone senior. Who had them and kept them this long? It does feel like a Cummings operation,’ they said.
Becky Kummer, of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said: ‘There are simply no words to describe how upsetting and shameful it is to hear Boris Johnson’s team laughing about breaking the rules they had made, while others followed them and could only say goodbye to their loved ones through a screen. It’s the behaviour of people who think they’re above us.’
The clip, obtained by ITV news, shows Ms Stratton, then the PM’s press secretary, and Ed Oldfield, No10’s head of digital, rehearsing a question and answer session in the No9 briefing room.
In it Oldfield asks a question about ‘a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night’, to which Ms Stratton laughs and replies: ‘I went home.’
When he asks if the Prime Minister would condone such a party, Ms Stratton appears unsure how to respond and asks the room: ‘What’s the answer?’
A third voice can be heard saying ‘it wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine’, before Ms Stratton added: ‘It was a business meeting … this fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.’
The footage was released after Boris Johnson had earlier refused to answer questions about the gathering, with questions raised over whether it breached social distancing rules in place at the time.
The Metropolitan Police has said it was aware of the footage and is considering an investigation into the alleged breaches of Covid-19 regulations in government buildings last December.
Asked about it on a visit to a London prison yesterday, Mr Johnson would only say that all the rules had been followed at the time. Other ministers have refused to confirm if a party happened or not.
Sir Keir Starmer responded to the footage of Downing St aides joking about the party by saying that Boris Johnson needed to ‘come clean and apologise’.
The Labour leader said: ‘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.
‘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.’
In response to the footage, a Downing Street spokesman said: ‘There was no Christmas party. Covid rules have been followed at all times.’
The leaked footage was shot in the media room at 9 Downing Street, which was refurbished at a cost of £2.6 million in preparation for the televised broadcasts before the plan was ditched.
Parties were banned under Covid restrictions at the time. Mr Johnson has not confirmed or denied reports that members of his Downing Street team staged a party on December 18 last year when London was under Tier 3 restrictions but he has insisted that no rules were broken.
Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab reignited the party row yesterday after he said it would have been a clear breach of Covid rules at the time if Mr Johnson’s staff held a party in Number 10 in the run-up to last Christmas.
The PM yesterday insisted no rules were broken, after the Times reported that staff wore festive jumpers and were asked to bring ‘secret Santa’ gifts.
They were reported to have brought alcohol and food to the event said to have been attended by dozens of colleagues
Mr Johnson’s official spokesman has insisted ‘there was not a party’ but the Prime Minister declined to characterise the event during a visit to a prison in London on Tuesday.
‘What I can tell you is that all the guidelines were observed, continue to be observed,’ he told reporters.
Asked if he investigated personally, Mr Johnson said: ‘I am satisfied myself that the guidelines were followed at all times.’
The spokesman later added that ‘our position has not changed’ following Mr Johnson’s comments.
Several families who lost loved ones over the Christmas period last year vented their fury at the latest developments in shambolic party saga, calling it a ‘betrayal’ of families who followed the rules.
Louisa Backway, whose father died of prostrate cancer after being unable to spend his last Christmas with his children and grandchildren, said she and her family are ‘furious’ after watching the video.
‘To know now that I sacrificed the last time that my dad could see his grandchildren, the last time that I could see my dad when he was well and himself, I can’t get that time back,’ she told ITV News.
Referring to Mr Johsnson, Louisa added: ‘I probably can’t really say what I think about him right now, because I’m just, I’m just so angry, so angry. And I’m sure many people are.’
Trisha Greenhalgh, a Professor in Primary Care, took to social media to recall her heartbreak as her mother died on Christmas without any family by her side.
Addressing her tweet to Allegra Stratton, the Oxford lecturer wrote: ‘On the day you partied, my mother called me, breathless and feverish. I didn’t visit. On the day you joked, she was admitted to hospital. I didn’t visit.
‘As you celebrated Christmas, she died without family by her side. I promise you, it wasn’t funny.’
Ministers are yet to explain how the alleged bash complied with the rules in place at the time, despite coming under pressure since an initial report in the Daily Mirror.
The newspaper said two events took place in No 10 in the run-up to the festive season last year, including Mr Johnson giving a speech at a leaving do during November’s lockdown.
Cabinet colleagues swerved questions about the party over the past week.
Mr Javid faced questions on the issue as he faced his new Labour shadow, Wes Streeting, the MP for Ilford North, in the Commons yesterday.
‘Residents in Ilford are this week being prosecuted for holding an indoor gathering of two or more people on December 18, 2020, and rightly so,’ Mr Streeting said.
‘Isn’t it time that the Government comes clean about the event in Downing Street on that same day, admit they broken the rules and apologise? Or does the Secretary of State believe, as the PM appears to, that it is one for rule and another for everyone else?’
Mr Javid replied only to say: ‘In terms of rules, of course they should apply to everyone, regardless of who they are.’
Policing Minister Kit Malthouse had earlier insisted he had been ‘reassured that all of the regulations were complied with’ as he was grilled over the Downing Street Christmas party row.
Mr Malthouse clashed with BBC Radio 4 Today programme presenter Mishal Husain during a fiery interview as she asked him to make sense of the Government’s position.
The Tory frontbencher said he is ‘not an investigator’ but he had ‘asked the question was all the regulations compiled with’ and he had been ‘reassured they were’.
It came as Downing Street said it intends to hold a Christmas party for staff this year.
The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said: ‘We haven’t confirmed any dates at the moment. I think there is an intention to have a Christmas party this year.’
Boris Johnson has insisted that Christmas parties should go ahead this month despite the return of some Covid restrictions to stop the spread of the Omicron variant.
Mr Raab, who is also the Justice Secretary, said he did not know the truth of the reports based on ‘unsubstantiated claims all on the basis of anonymous sources’, but if they turned out to be correct, then there would have been a breach.
He said that ‘if there was a formal party held, of course that is something that is clearly contrary to the guidance’.
Ms Husain asked Mr Malthouse this morning if a hypothetical gathering at the BBC last Christmas involving ‘several dozen of us, drinks, nibbles, party games’ would have been within the rules.
He replied: ‘Well, you are asking me a hypothetical question. I would have said to you you have to abide by the regulations.’
Mr Malthouse said he asked Number 10 ahead of his broadcast round of interviews this morning ‘whether regulations were complied with’ and ‘I was reassured that all of the regulations were complied with’.
Last week The Daily Mirror reported that two events took place in Number 10 last year in the run-up to the festive season.
The first was said to have been a leaving do for a senior aide held in November, when the country was in a second national lockdown, apparently attended by Mr Johnson who gave a speech.
The second was reportedly a staff party in December where, according to multiple reports, party games were played, food and drink were served, and the revelries went on past midnight.
The rules in place in the capital at the time explicitly banned work Christmas lunches and parties where it was ‘a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted’.
Source from Dailymail.co.uk
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