Work Christmas parties are usually just a bit of fun – a chance to drink on the company buck and catch your married colleague kissing the office manager. But for the UK government, a Christmas party allegedly held in the Prime Minister’s own flat on December 18th last year – when the UK was under strict lockdown measures as the coronavirus death-toll climbed alarmingly – is causing seismic political turmoil and threatening to topple the Prime Minister.
When the story broke last week, the government denied the party ever took place, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that no rules were broken. And then, on Tuesday night, a bombshell dropped: A video emerged of the government’s then press secretary standing in the government’s briefing room, appearing to practice fielding questions from journalists about the party and laughing about it. It appears to show a government figure mocking the sacrifices made by the British public during the pandemic.
Now Boris Johnson’s government faces its biggest crisis since the last one, and all over some cheese and wine and Secret Santa. So what’s the story?
On December 16th 2020, the government moved London into Tier 3 restrictions, which meant no indoor socialising could take place unless within a support bubble. Johnson warned Britons to limit the size of their Christmas celebrations, saying, “A smaller Christmas is going to be a safer Christmas,” in a Downing Street press conference.
The government’s guidance said: “Although there are exemptions for work purposes, you must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted by the rules in your tier.” Effectively, Christmas party gatherings were illegal.
Police were shutting down gatherings, such as a wedding, and fining people for holding large events.
The following day, on the 19th of December, Boris Johnson “cancelled Christmas,” saying that a relaxation of rules would not take place even on Christmas day, leaving many spending Christmas without families and friends.
Despite this, on the 18th of December, a Christmas party with “several dozen” people is alleged to have taken place in Number 10 Downing Street, involving cheese and wine and Secret Santa. According to a BBC source, “Food and drink was laid on for staff including those from the press office and the Number 10 events team and party games were played.”
The Mirror initially broke the story last week, when the government was grappling with the newly emerging Omicron variant. Anger radiated across the UK, with families of those who had lost loved ones to Covid saying they were “sickened” by the revelation.
A week after the story broke, Number 10 denied that a Christmas party ever took place, saying “there was not a party.” On the 1st of December, Boris Johnson, who was not at the party, told Parliament that “all guidance was followed” and more recently that, “no covid rules were broken.”
On Tuesday, a bombshell dropped. A leaked video, taken on the 22nd of December 2020 – while London was under such strict rules residents were instructed to avoid leaving the house unless it was essential – was broadcast by ITV News. The video shows Allegra Stratton, Johnson’s then press secretary, appearing to reference the party and laugh about it.
Stratton is seen being quizzed by civil servants pretending to be journalists at a practice press conference. Number 10 aide Ed Oldfield asks, “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night. Do you recognise those reports?” Stratton then laughs, and jokes that she “went home.”
Later on in the video she’s seen saying, “What’s the answer?”
Another colleague says: “It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine.”
Stratton says: “Is cheese and wine alright?”
The colleague then says, “No, joking.” Stratton, still looking for an answer, replies: “It was a business meeting.”
She then warns the room that “this is recorded,” before wryly saying: “This fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.”
Britain is now in total uproar over the video. The government has avoided any media appearances and was empty-chaired by the breakfast shows on major broadcasters ITV and the BBC.
The government has even been mocked by hosts Ant and Dec on reality TV show I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here – not usually a destination for political satire.
It is unclear if this will be the scandal that finally topples the government. It has certainly added to an air of dissent within the Conservative party – which has been battling corruption scandals and criticism over the way it handled the Afghanistan exit – as backbenchers are said to be “apoplectic” at the Christmas party footage.
In today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Labour leader Keir Starmer confronted the Prime Minister on the video. “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’s obvious what happened,” he said.
In response, Boris Johnson announced an internal investigation into something we know already happened in his own house.
“I’ve been repeatedly assured that no rules were broken,” he said to Parliament. “I understand public anxiety about this and I understand public indignation. But there is a risk of doing grave injustice to those who were obeying the rules. That is why the cabinet secretary is conducting an investigation and there will be the requisite disciplinary action if necessary.”
Meanwhile, outside 10 Downing Street, a person holding a giant speaker is playing Beastie Boys’, “Fight for Your Right to Party”.