Published: 06:41, 08 December 2021
| Updated: 18:06, 08 December 2021
Two Kent MPs have slammed the government after it emerged a Christmas party was held during lockdown.
North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale said the controversy had 'all the hallmarks of another Barnard Castle moment' while Tracey Crouch said she is ''fuming" and can't "begin to defend or justify".
The MPs were the only two in the county to criticise number 10 before Boris Johnson addressed a leaked video showing two spokesman laughing about a Christmas party. One of those in the clip, the PM's spokeswoman Allegra Stratton, has this afternoon resigned.
At Prime Minister's Questions today, Sir Keir Starmer called Boris Johnson "desperate" and asked if he was "ashamed" of Downing Street's actions and if he thought he had "the moral authority to lead".
Mr Johnson began the session by saying he understood people's fury but said lockdown measures were followed and accused the Labour leader of politicising the issue. He repeatedly tried to refocus the conversation on the Omicron variant.
In his opening statement Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: "I understand and share the anger at seeing number 10 staff making light of lockdown measures.
"I can understand how infuriating it must be that the people setting the rules have not been following the rules because I was also furious to see that clip and I apologise unreservedly for the offence it has caused and for the impression it gives.
"I repeat, since these allegations emerged that there was no party and no Covid rules were broken and that is what I have been repeatedly assured.
"But I have asked the cabinet secretary to establish all the facts and report back as soon as possible. And it goes without saying, if those rules were broken there will be disciplinary action for all of those involved."
Sir Keir Starmer says his opening statement raises more questions than it answers and reminds the PM of what he said last week about the rumoured parties.
"Millions of people now think the Prime Minster was taking them for fools and they were lied to. They were right weren't they.
"Surely the Prime Minister isn't going to pretend the first he knew was last night...It's obvious what happened.
"Ant and Dec are ahead of the Prime Minister on this. Why doesn't he end this investigation right now by just admitting it."
Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer clash in parliament
In the feisty exchange, the PM stood by his denial of rules being broken but saying "he understands the public anxiety".
The Labour leader ensures Mr Johnson is listening to him as he shares stories of Tricia - a woman who didn't visit her sick mother in hospital before her death.
"I know the implication he is trying to draw," Mr Johnson replies. "But it's a mistake to try and play politics with this issue. And that's what he is doing.
"The public do not want to see confidence in these measures undermined."
He continues to claim the focus is on things going forward not "the events of a year ago".
Sir Keir said Mr Johnson must understand the damage he's done to his credibility adding "no one was dreaming of a zoom Christmas, turkey dinners for one, presents exchanged at service stations but the virus was out of control. 489 people died of Covid on the day of the party. British people put themselves above others and followed the rules.
"Isn't the Prime Minster ashamed that his Downing Street couldn't do the same?"
But Mr Johnson throws it back to the public and said we must "focus on today what we're doing to protect the public" and tries to move the topic to talk of the Omicron variant.
Before the leaders appeared in the commons, KentOnline contacted all Kent MPs for their opinion on the incident.
Veteran Conservative Sir Roger Gale declared 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.
Speaking to Sky News, Sir Roger said he wants Boris Johnson to say "there was no party and to say that on the record".
"If he says that, I will believe him.
"Because to deliberately mislead the House, if that turns out to be the case, would be a resignation matter."
Later in the morning, Sir Roger spoke on BBC Radio 4, describing his reaction to the news as one of "total incredulity".
"We have to be able to have a laugh from time to time, but this isn't a laughing matter - it's very serious indeed," he said.
"The government may have to introduce more stringent controls than it has done to date. If we are going to have to do that, then we have to be able to take people with us.
"And that means getting out the message that you need to do this to save yourself, save the people you love and save the health service.
"How are we going to do that if the other message coming out is about some party that shouldn't have been held at Downing Street last Christmas?"
This isn't the first time the North Thanet MP has challenged Mr Johnson. Last year, he said the Prime Minister should resign if he was unable to get a Brexit deal.
Chatham and Aylesford MP Tracey Crouch said: "I am fuming! My constituents have every right to be angry.
"Their memories of lost loved ones are traumatized 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.
Speaking after the PMQs exchange Gordon Henderson, Conservative MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, said if rules were broken, then disciplinary action should be taken.
He said: "I have no idea whether the allegations of staff holding a party in 10 Downing Street are true, but if such an event did take place, then I believe those responsible should be punished.
"Therefore, I am delighted the Prime Minister has asked the Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, to undertake an investigation into those allegations.
"If Mr Case discovers Covid-19 restriction rules were broken, the Prime Minister has promised to take disciplinary action and refer the matter to the Metropolitan Police. That, I believe, is the right action."
He added: "If a party did take place at 10 Downing Street last Christmas, I can assure people living in Sittingbourne and Sheppey that I did not attend. In addition, I do not believe any other Member of Parliament would have broken the rules in such a disgraceful way."
Paul Cooper, the chairman of the Faversham and Mid Kent Conservative constituency association called for resignations .
He said:“Let's face it, we have all made jokes and I don't think we should hold it against people if those jokes were lacking in taste. But to even think of that at such a time,which is being recorded, beggars belief. Sometimes I think that even if you didn't want to cause offence, once the damage is done you have to deal with the consequences.”
“It is a tremendously embarrassing incident and if it is proved to be true then people have every right to be angry about it. If there was a party and Boris Johnson knew about it, that is a very serious problem.”
“Whether you think the restrictions were right or wrong last year they were controversial and had a tremendous impact on people's lives not least because they happened at a time of the year when people expect to see their family.”
“The mere suggestion that those at the highest echelons of government were having parties while telling people they were unable to do so will...leave people feeling incredibly angry, upset and lose confidence in the government.”
If the government was to proceed with further restrictions to limit the spread of the new variant, people would question whether ministers would be complying with them, he added.
Asked what party activists felt about the saga, he said: “ They are deeply embarrassed by it, not least by the way it has been handled.”
The county's only Labour MP Rosie Duffield has also condemned Boris Johnson, saying he should treat the public with respect.
She said: "This latest development is upsetting. So many of my Constituents could not visit their families last Christmas, some having to stay away whilst their loved ones were ill, whilst those in number 10 were seemingly breaking the rules they were setting for everyone else. The Prime Minister and those around him should take responsibility for their actions and treat the public with respect, not laugh at them."
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.
An NHS England staffer has said she is “incandescent” with anger at the video. She said she was working with Covid-19 patients that month, when her mother was admitted to her hospital following a fall.
“To say I’m angry… I’m incandescent. It’s the disrespect, it’s the one rule for us and another rule for them, that’s what’s the worst,” the staffer said.
“I see Allegra Stratton laughing up there and I feel sick, I feel disrespected, (like) I’ve been taken for a mug.
“I can’t put enough words together right now as to how appalling that behaviour is. It should have consequences.”
Analysis from political editor Paul Francis
Backbench Conservative MPs may be exasperated by the continuing row over parties at Downing Street but with the exception of Kent MPs Sir Roger Gale and Tracey Crouch have so far largely remained silent.
The government's continued assertion that all the lockdown rules were observed is beginning to have all the credibility of the child who says the dog ate their homework.
The problem for Boris Johnson is not just that scarcely anyone believes that there was no party. If there wasn’t one, why does he continue to contend that all the rules around lockdown restrictions were observed? How do you ‘comply’ with the rules for an event that did not take place?
Above all this, however, is the serious issue of the efforts being made to deal with another outbreak of Covid infections caused by the new variant.
The latest revelations and the leak of a video all create a toxic political backdrop to the probability of further restrictions being implemented before Christmas.
Voters do not take kindly to the instruction to adhere to rules which politicians themselves fail to abide with.
The government could come clean and opt for full disclosure to limit the damage but even that will fail to convince the public.