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Explainer: Why is there uproar over a Number 10 party that happened last Christmas?

A look at why Boris Johnson has launched an investigation into a “cheese and wine” gathering at Number 10.
Dec 8th 2021, 2:51 PM 17,487 10

BORIS JOHNSON IS coming under pressure over a restrictions-breaking party held at Number 10 Downing Street by his staff last Christmas, that his Government has officially denied had taken place.

A video of Downing Street staff joking on camera a year ago about the event emerged last night, and has put pressure on Downing Street’s statements denying that they occured.

At the time that the party took place, London was in Tier 3 restrictions where indoor gatherings of different households were banned; pubs and bars were closed except for takeaways; and people were specifically advised against holding office Christmas parties.

How this came to light

britains-prime-minister-boris-johnson-and-chris-whitty-chief-medical-officer-for-england-take-part-in-a-news-conference-about-the-ongoing-situation-with-the-coronavirus-disease-covid-19-pandemic Prime Minister Johnson and English CMO Chris Whitty at a press conference at Number 10 Downing Street. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Last week, the Daily Mirror reported that Johnson made a speech at a leaving do on 27 November, and allowed a Christmas party to proceed on 18 December during severe Covid-19 restrictions and amid concerns of a new variant (Alpha).

The Mirror alleged that around “40 or 50″ people were crammed “cheek by jowl” into a room in Number 10 for both events.

On 16 December, two days before the second Downing Street gathering is said to have taken place, London moved into Tier 3 restrictions where all indoor mixing was banned unless individuals were in ‘support’ bubbles.

Last Thursday, Sky News reported that a number of parties were held in Downing Street in the run-up to Christmas last year while indoor mixing was banned in London under Covid restrictions.

Despite the strong inference that this broke the rules at the time, Downing Street has issued statements to say that reports were inaccurate and that no rules had been broken. 

The UK Government spokespeople then denied that any party had taken place.

The leaked video

Last night, ITV published a video reported to be from 22 December last year, in which senior aides refer to a party on ‘Friday’ – which would have been 18 December, the same day the Daily Mirror reported there was a staff party where games were played and food and drinks were served until after midnight.

The video was taken in the UK Government’s £2.6 million press briefing room, as aides rehearsed possible questions from the media.

It shows former press secretary Allegra Stratton laughing and adviser Ed Oldfield, along with other aides, joking about a “fictional” Downing Street party.

Oldfield asks Stratton: “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night, do you recognise those reports?”

Stratton replied “I went home” and laughs, before appearing to consider a response.

She then asks “What’s the answer?” to which someone replies “I don’t know!”

During the rehearsal, filmed as part of a subsequently-abandoned plan for 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?” Stratton replied, to laughter in the room. One person replied “No! … Joking.”

Stratton then noted “This is recorded”, adding: “This fictional party was a business meeting … and it was not socially distanced.” 

Why it matters

There are several reasons why this story matters:

  • The number of people in England who weren’t able to see loved ones who were dying or who were bereaved last winter are incensed at the idea that the same rules don’t apply to Government staff gatherings;
  • There are a dozen people currently being prosecuted for holding gatherings last December that breached restrictions;
  • Boris Johnson has been advised that new Covid restrictions are needed shortly, meaning he needs the public’s trust to implement them; this is possibly damaged after Downing Street repeatedly denied that rules were broken or a party was held.

2.64200176 Source: PA Images

One English woman, Jackie Green, described the Downing Street officials’ attitude as “totally reprehensible” and said it made a mockery of her own decision to abide by lockdown rules despite her elderly and widowed mother’s loneliness.

Jackie’s mother Beryl died in hospital after contracting Covid-19, and without having seen her daughter for 10 months – on 18 December last year, the same day the Downing Street gathering took place.

This afternoon, Labour leader Keir Starmer told the House of Commons that more than a dozen breaches of Covid restrictions last December were being prosecuted “right now” in Westminster Magistrates’ Court, including for those who hosted parties.

The Metropolitan Police confirmed officers are reviewing the leaked video published by ITV in relation to “alleged breaches” of coronavirus regulations.

When Starmer asked Johnson if he supported the police and support the Crown Prosecution Service “by handing over everything the Government knows about parties in Downing Street to the Metropolitan Police”, Johnson said:

Of course we will do that and we will get on with the investigation by the Cabinet Secretary.

Backbench Tory MPs have reported receiving a lot of correspondence from their constituents about this issue, leading to pressure on Boris Johnson and his Government to address the issue. 

A post-PMQ briefing at Downing Street

london-uk-8th-dec-2021-british-prime-minister-boris-johnson-leaves-10-downing-street-to-face-prime-ministers-questions-pmqs-in-parliament-today-credit-imageplotteralamy-live-news Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to face Prime Minister's Questions today. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

At Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons this afternoon, Boris Johnson said that that the UK Government’s most senior civil servant, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, will be “conducting an investigation” in to whether or not there had been a gathering and whether it broke Covid restrictions.

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Downing Street’s official line has now shifted with the announcement of the Cabinet Secretary Simon Case’s inquiry – with the Prime Minister’s press secretary declining to repeat the statement that “there was no party”.

She said “it wouldn’t be right to comment further” while Case was investigating.

Downing Street would not confirm, however, whether or not Case himself was at the 18 December event, although officials insisted “due diligence” was carried out before announcing the investigation.

It’s also unclear who else was at the gathering – indications are that Johnson was not in attendance, but it’s unclear whether he was aware of the gathering, or gave it the green light to go ahead at Number 10 Downing Street, the UK Prime Minister’s official residence.

Number 10 would not give a timetable for Case’s investigation to conclude, but the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said “we want it to be as soon as possible”.

The spokesman confirmed that Stratton was still employed as an aide – she has been the spokeswoman for the COP26 climate summit – and the Prime Minister still has confidence in her.

With reporting from the Associated Press.

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Gráinne Ní Aodha

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