UK PM apologises for staff joking about Christmas party

Published December 9, 2021
A handout photograph released by the UK Parliament shows Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gesturing as he speaks during Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons in London on Wednesday. — AFP
A handout photograph released by the UK Parliament shows Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gesturing as he speaks during Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons in London on Wednesday. — AFP

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologised on Wednesday after a video surfaced showing his staff laughing and joking about a party in Downing Street during a Christmas Covid-19 lockdown last year when such festivities were banned.

Hours later the main aide featured in the video, Johnson’s press secretary at the time, Allegra Stratton, resigned as an adviser to the prime minister. In a tearful statement, she said she would regret the remarks she made in the video for the rest of her days.

For more than a week, Johnson and his team have repeated that no rules were broken late last year after the Mirror newspaper reported there had been several parties, including a wine-fuelled gathering of 40 to 50 people, to mark Christmas.

On Wednesday, Johnson told parliament that he was furious about the video, which was first shown by ITV late on Tuesday, but said he had been repeatedly assured that no party took place at Downing Street, his office and official residence.

Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer accused Johnson of “taking the public for fools”, while Ian Blackford of the Scottish National Party told Johnson to resign.

It is the latest misstep by an administration which has been criticised over its handling of a sleaze scandal, the awarding of Covid contracts, the refurbishment of Johnson’s Downing Street apartment and the chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan.

“I apologise unreservedly for the offence that it has caused up and down the country, and I apologise for the impression that it gives,” Johnson told parliament.

Disciplinary action would be taken if it was found that rules had been broken, he said.

“But I repeat ... that I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged, that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken.”

He also pledged to “get on with the job”, accusing the opposition of trying to “muddy the waters about events or non-events of a year ago”.

After days of denials, the video aired by ITV showed Stratton at a Downing Street rehearsal for a daily briefing on Dec 22 last year, during which she laughed and joked about a reported Christmas gathering.

In the video, another Johnson adviser 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, standing before British flags at an official Downing Street lectern, says: “I went home.”

She then laughs and smiles. “Hold on. Hold on. Um. Er. Ah.” She appears lost for words and looks up.

On Wednesday, Stratton made a tearful statement to media outside her house, saying she was resigning from her current role as Johnson’s spokeswoman for climate change.

“I understand the anger and frustration that people feel. To all of you who lost loved ones, who endured intolerable loneliness and who struggled with your businesses — I am truly sorry,” she said.

At the time of the Downing Street gathering, tens of millions of people across Britain were banned from meeting close family or friends for a traditional Christmas celebration — and even from bidding farewell to dying relatives.

Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2021

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