U.K. PM apologizes, aide resigns, as scandal over alleged Christmas party intensifies
2020 video of staffers recorded as British public was told to hunker down, avoid indoor gatherings
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday ordered an inquiry and said he was "furious" after a leaked video showed senior members of his staff joking about holding a lockdown-breaching Christmas party.
The video has poured fuel on allegations that government officials flouted coronavirus rules they imposed on everyone else.
"I understand and share the anger up and down the country" at staff members seeming to make light of lockdown rules, Johnson said.
"I was also furious to see that clip," he told lawmakers in the House of Commons. "I apologize unreservedly for the offence that it has caused up and down the country, and I apologize for the impression it gives."
For days, the prime minister's office has been trying to rebut reports that Johnson's staff held a December 2020 office party — complete with wine, food, games and a festive gift exchange — when pandemic regulations banned most social gatherings.
According to multiple British media outlets, the party took place on Dec. 18, when restrictions in London prohibited most indoor gatherings, and a day before Johnson tightened the rules even further, ruling out family Christmas celebrations for millions of people.
The video, recorded on Dec. 22, 2020, and aired late Tuesday by broadcaster ITV, shows then-press secretary Allegra Stratton appearing to joke about an illicit party at the prime minister's Downing Street office.
The recording appears to be a mock news conference, held as a rehearsal for televised daily government media briefings.
Another aide, playing a journalist, says: "I've just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night. Do you recognize those reports?"
As laughter is heard, Stratton, the press secretary, says: "I went home," and asks colleagues: "What's the answer?" Another voice can be heard saying: "It wasn't a party, it was cheese and wine."
"Is cheese and wine all right? It was a business meeting," a laughing Stratton says.
Addressing the media outside her home on Wednesday, Stratton apologized, stating that she "will regret those remarks for the rest of my days."
Prime minister's office denied party was held
For several days, Johnson's spokespeople have insisted that no party was held and no rules were broken. But on Wednesday, Johnson said he had ordered Britain's top civil servant, Simon Case, to investigate. He said anyone found to have broken the rules would be disciplined.
Thousands of people in Britain have been fined since early 2020 for breaking restrictions by holding illegal gatherings. London's Metropolitan Police said officers had reviewed the leaked video but would not investigate the alleged party due to a lack of evidence and a department policy not to investigate retrospective breaches of coronavirus regulations.
The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, said the prime minister should be "ashamed."
"Millions of people now think the prime minister was taking them for fools and that they were lied to. They're right, aren't they?" Starmer asked Johnson during the prime minister's weekly House of Commons question session.
Starmer contrasted the government's behaviour with that of Queen Elizabeth, who in April sat alone at the funeral of her husband of 73 years, Prince Philip, because of physical-distancing rules.
"Leadership, sacrifice — that's what gives leaders the moral authority to lead," the Labour leader said. "Does the prime minister think he has the moral authority to lead and to ask the British people to stick to the rules?"
Ian Blackford, of the Scottish National Party, meanwhile, called for Johnson to resign.
Controversy follows high-profile COVID-related exits
The Christmas party claims are the latest in a string of allegations of rule-breaking and ethics violations that are stirring discontent against Johnson's Conservative government, even among some of the party's own lawmakers.
Last year, Johnson resisted pressure to fire his then-top aide, Dominic Cummings, for driving across England to his parents' house while he was falling ill with COVID-19, in breach of a nationwide "stay-at-home" order. Cummings has since left the government.
In June, Health Secretary Matt Hancock resigned after leaked video showed him kissing an aide in a government office while both of them were married to other people, at a time when restrictions forbade hugs and other physical contact with people outside one's own household.
Dr. Saleyha Ahsan, from the group COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said the Christmas party allegations were a "bullet to the chest" of families who have lost loved ones during the pandemic. Many have been barred by restrictions from visiting gravely ill or dying relatives in hospitals.
Ahsan said it was "an example of how the government have run this from the start: One rule for them, and the rest of us have to adhere to different rules."
With more than 145,000 COVID-19-related deaths, Britain has the second-highest pandemic death toll in Europe after Russia.
'Plan B' restrictions announced
Johnson's government removed almost all restrictions in July, but on Wednesday reversed course and triggered its "Plan B" for England — ordering face coverings be worn in indoor public places, requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test to enter nightclubs and asking people to work from home if they can.
Some lawmakers worried the "partygate" allegations would undermine public compliance with the measures. But Johnson said he was confident people would do the right thing.
"I think the British public can see the vital importance of the medical information that we're giving, and they can see the need to take it to heart and act upon it," he told a news conference.
With files from CBC News