Boris Johnson today finally “apologised unreservedly” over a No10 Christmas party – but denied all responsibility, continued to claim he was told rules were followed, and threw his own staff under the bus.
Mr Johnson said he was “sickened and furious” at a clip of his own staff laughing about a Christmas bash four days after it happened last December, when lockdown rules banned social gatherings.
After a week of stonewalling questions, and No10 claiming there was no party, the PM announced an investigation by the Cabinet Secretary and disciplinary action if the rules were broken.
He told Prime Minister’s Questions: “I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing No10 staff seeming tor make light of lockdown measures.
“And I can understand how infuriating it must be to think the people who’ve been setting the rules have not been following the rules – because I was also furious to see that clip.
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“And I apologise unreservedly for the offence that it has caused up and down the country and I apologise for the impression that it gives.
“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’ve 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 that if those rules were broken there will be disciplinary action for all those involved.”
But Labour leader Keir Starmer said: “Surely the Prime Minister isn’t going to start pretending the first he knew about this was last night.”
As Boris Johnson accused Sir Keir of “playing politics”, Labour’s leader said: “It’s obvious what happened – Ant and Dec are ahead of the Prime Minister on this. The PM has been caught red handed.
“Why doesn’t he end the investigation right now by just admitting it?”
He added: “Millions of people now think the Prime Minister was taking them for fools and there were lied to. They’re right, aren’t they?”
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said people had “sacrificed at times to the point of breaking while the UK government has laughed in our faces”.
Demanding the PM quit he said: “He can no longer lead on the most pressing issue facing these islands. The only right and moral choice left to him is for his resignation.”
Mr Johnson replied: “The party opposite are going to continue to play politics. I am going to get on with the job.”
Asked if he’d hand over “everything the Government knows about parties in Downing Street to the Metropolitan Police”, Mr Johnson replied: “Of course we will do that.”
But No10 confirmed the Cabinet Secretary investigation will NOT cover a second alleged event on November 27, during a national lockdown – which sources claimed the PM spoke at.
Meanwhile it will not cover an alleged party in the Downing Street flat on November 13, which ex-aide Dominic Cummings has claimed took place.
A spokeswoman for Carrie Symonds previously flatly denied she held parties in the flat, the existence of which remain unconfirmed.
Asked at PMQs if there was a party in Downing Street on November 13, the PM replied: “No, but I’m sure that whatever happened the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.”
Asked if trust in politics matters, the PM replied to Labour protests: “It does”.
The Prime Minister was forced to address the claims after he faced a revolt from his own party.
There was an enraged backlash over newly-revealed footage that shows No10 staff apparently joking about the party four days after it happened.
Ex-minister Tracey Crouch said she was “fuming!” while former party chairwoman Sayeeda Warsi tweeted: “Every minister, parliamentarian & staffer at the #downingstreetparty must resign NOW.”
Keir Starmer accused No10 of spouting “lies”, while the Lib Dems demanded “any legal advice” produced on the party amid speculation it could have been legal on a technicality.
As grim-faced Attorney General Suella Braverman and Health Secretary Sajid Javid were spotted going into No10 this morning, Tory Tobias Ellwood urged Cabinet Secretary Simon Case or “another senior independent voice” to probe the matter.
Ex-No10 aide Dominic Cummings said the PM would need “a f***ing dead cat army” – just as reports emerged that he could announce Plan B Covid measures today.
For a week after the Mirror revealed the bash on December 18 last year – when London was in Tier 3 lockdown rules – ministers have insisted no rules were broken.
No10 even tried to insinuate it didn’t happen – by claiming whatever took place wasn’t a party.
But last night a clip was leaked to ITV News of a private ‘mock’ press conference four days after the bash, which involved a Secret Santa, wine, a quiz and “40 or 50” people.
War-gaming questions if the event leaked, then-Press Secretary Allegra Stratton shrugged “what’s the answer?” before joking the “fictional” event was “was not socially distanced”.
Last night the Metropolitan Police said: “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.”
Ex-Health Secretary Matt Hancock told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “I’ve seen something from the police in the newspapers saying they will take it into consideration. It’s absolutely a matter for them and certainly not for the politicians.”
But despite being in government at the time he insisted “I wasn’t invited, I wasn’t there”, adding: “I only found out about it late last night and then I got up early this morning.”
Speculation has been mounting about how No10 figures claimed the party did not break rules.
Firstly, ‘permitted organised gatherings’ were allowed under the December 18 laws if they happened on premises “operated by a public body” and organisers carried out a risk assessment. But at these gatherings, “mingling” between different household groups was still banned by law.
Secondly, gatherings that were “reasonably necessary for work purposes” had an exemption under the law. But the GOV.UKTwitter account said on December 17, a day before the party: “Although there are exemptions for work purposes, you must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity.”
Thirdly, barrister Adam Wagner pointed out the 1984 Public Health Act – from which lockdown laws spawned – suggests a government department or ‘Crown property’ may have an immunity clause.
The 1984 Act says government departments can form an agreement with the local council that “any relevant provision of this Act specified in the agreement shall apply to the property”.
Mr Wagner said there are “potential legal ambiguities” and “It’s not clear whether that means it doesn’t apply to individuals.”
Tory MPs are enraged that they defended No10 only for the video to emerge last night.
One anonymous Conservative told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg: “Every lie just compounds the problem. But lying eventually catches people out.
“Another awful mess created out of Downing St. Question now in tea room is Boris reaching a tipping point – where he is becoming a liability and no longer an asset?”
Tory MP Anne Marie Morris said: “Clearly there were rules in place that most of us were diligently following (despite how difficult they were) and they decided to break them.
“It’s not on and, at the very least, they should admit their blatant error and apologise for breaking the rules they imposed on society.”
Chairman of the Commons Education Committee Robert Halfon said: “I certainly think that those who were doing the video should apologise for the insensitivity of it when people were suffering and struggling all through that time.”
But he stopped short of calling for the Prime Minister himself to apologise.
Conservative Sir Roger Gale told Sky News: “This is like something out of The Thick Of It.”
He added: “I fear this could be a Barnard Castle moment all over again. It is very serious.”
Sir Roger demanded Boris Johnson come to PMQs and either admit there was a party – or categorically deny it.
The MP told the BBC: “If he says that, I will believe him. And the reason is because that will be on the record at the despatch box, and of course to mislead the House of Commons deliberately would be a resignation matter.”
Failing to explain the row this morning, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said at the Chatham House foreign affairs think tank: “We do follow the rules on Covid.
“On that particular issue that you raised, I’m not aware of the precise circumstances.
“I know the Prime Minister’s spokesman has addressed that issue.”
The recording is of a rehearsal on December 22 for planned daily TV media briefings, which Ms Stratton was supposed to be the face of but the Prime Minister later scrapped.
Ed Oldfield, adviser to the PM, said: “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night, do you recognise those reports?”
“I went home”, replies Ms Stratton, who appears to crease up laughing before telling colleagues “hold on”.
Following a long pause, Mr Oldfield goes on: “Would the prime minister condone having a Christmas party?”
Ms Stratton laughs and says “what’s the answer?” before her colleagues step in to help her compose an answer.
“It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine”, offers one.
On the day of the party, Tier 3 rules banned gatherings of multiple households in London unless they were “permitted organised gatherings” such as a business meeting.
Less than 24 hours after the No10 party, Boris Johnson told England that with a “heavy heart”, Christmas would not be able to go ahead as planned.
On the day of the mock press conference, 629 people died in the UK with Covid on their death certificate.
Boris Johnson’s government went into hiding this morning as Health Secretary Sajid Javid abandoned the ‘broadcast round’ of TV interviews, where he was meant to celebrate a year since the first Covid jab.
ITV’s Good Morning Britain left an empty chair while BBC Radio 4 presenter Nick Robinson said Mr Javid’s appearances was cancelled “just a few minutes after that video emerged”.
Last night No10 bizarrely claimed in response to the evidence: “There was no Christmas party. COVID rules have been followed at all times.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.