Published: 00:36, 08 December 2021
| Updated: 00:42, 08 December 2021
Boris Johnson is expected to face questions over whether he has told the truth about an alleged lockdown-busting Christmas party in No 10 after leaked footage showed his aides joking about a festive gathering.
The Conservative Party leader will be under the spotlight at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, with his opposite number likely to grill Mr Johnson for a second week running about what happened in Downing Street on December 18 last year.
Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, said the leaked video of senior aides laughing about a “cheese and wine” evening indicates that the Prime Minister has “not been straight” about claims of a festive get-together, with some reports claiming it featured alcohol and “secret Santa” present-giving.
I think (Boris Johnson) has not been straight about this at all
Mr Johnson could even face uncomfortable questions from his own backbenches, with veteran Conservative Sir Roger Gale declaring 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.
“No 10 clearly has some serious questions to answer. Fast,” tweeted the North Thanet MP.
In footage obtained by ITV News, the Prime Minister’s then press secretary Allegra Stratton and adviser Ed Oldfield, along with other aides, were filmed joking about a “fictional” Downing Street party in December 2020.
Ms Stratton is seen answering questions at a mock press conference on December 22 about a party the previous Friday – the date of the alleged Covid rule-breaking gathering which is said to have been attended by dozens of colleagues while social mixing indoors was banned in London under Tier 3 restrictions.
Mr Oldfield can be heard asking Ms Stratton: “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 replied “I went home” before appearing to consider what the correct answer should be.
During the rehearsal, filmed as part of a subsequently-abandoned plan for Ms Stratton to lead televised press briefings, one aide is heard saying: “It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine.”
“Is cheese and wine all right? It was a business meeting,” Ms Stratton replied, to laughter in the room.
Ms Stratton then noted “this is recorded”, adding: “This fictional party was a business meeting … and it was not socially distanced.”
The Metropolitan Police confirmed officers are reviewing the leaked video in relation to “alleged breaches” of coronavirus regulations.
In response to ITV’s report, a Downing Street spokesman said: “There was no Christmas party. Covid rules have been followed at all times.”
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.
The other was said to be a staff party in December where party games were played, food and drinks were served, and revelries went on past midnight.
At the time, the Tier 3 rules explicitly banned work Christmas lunches and parties where it is “a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted”.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for the Prime Minister to “come clean and apologise” over the alleged party.
“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.”
It comes as the Department for Education (DfE) admitted it held a social gathering of staff in the lead-up to Christmas in contravention to coronavirus social-distancing rules.
The Mirror reported that former education secretary Gavin Williamson threw a party and delivered a short speech at the event, which took place on December 10 while London was in Tier 2, which banned social mixing between households.
A DfE spokeswoman said: “While this was work-related, looking back we accept it would have been better not to have gathered in this way at that particular time.”
The controversy surrounding alleged Government behaviour during the lockdown comes as the coronavirus vaccine booster booking system opened on Wednesday to people aged 40 and over as ministers look to combat Omicron’s sweep across the UK with further jabs.
Official figures showed 101 additional cases of the Omicron variant have been reported across the UK – including the first cases detected in Northern Ireland – with the total now reaching 437.
Wednesday also marks exactly a year since the first coronavirus vaccine was given in the UK.