Boris Johnson at a 2017 speech. Image: Chatham House/Flickr
Controversy over the reported Downing Street party last Christmas has entered its second week.
After the release of an explosive ITV News video showing Boris Johnson’s staffers joking about the alleged bash, anger is mounting and questions are growing for the prime minister.
Since reports first broke that Downing Street officials allegedly held a Christmas party last December, while the rest of the country was subject to coronavirus restrictions, the story has developed at pace.
Amid the emotion, there’s a lot to digest. So The Big Issue has broken it down.
Subscribe to The Big Issue
From just £3 per week
Take a print or digital subscription to The Big Issue and provide a critical lifeline to our work.
November 30: The story of the Downing Street party is broken by the Mirror
The story of the Downing Street party on December 18 last year broke, with the Mirror revealing that “officials knocked back glasses of wine during a Christmas quiz and a Secret Santa while the rest of the country was forced to stay home”.
A source said 40 or 50 people were packed “cheek by jowl” in a Downing Street room while London was in tier three restriction. Boris Johnson was not at the party.
Two days earlier, Johnson had put the capital in tier three restrictions, banning Christmas parties where it was a “primarily social activity.”
And the day after the party, Johnson held a press conference to tell the country Christmas was cancelled.
But Downing Street’s official response to the Mirror story was that “Covid rules have been followed at all times.”
Today For Tomorrow
Join our Today For Tomorrow campaign
The Big Issue’s Today for Tomorrow Campaign aims to tackle the climate crisis, poverty and pandemics with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill. Support the Bill and email your MP today!
December 1: Further details about the party emerge
Appearing on LBC after the story broke, health secretary Sajid Javid said there weren’t parties he was aware of, but that all rules would have been followed at all times in Number 10.
But later on in the day, multiple other outlets revealed further details. The BBC reported that there were “drinks, nibbles, and games”.
The Financial Times published an account from a Downing Street insider arguing that the parties were a vital way of relieving stress.
“They were the only things that kept us going, bearing in mind we were the only people in Whitehall in the office working throughout”, an insider told the FT’s Laura Hughes. “We weren’t seeing anyone else outside of work and were our own bubble.”
At a Downing Street press briefing that day, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson had an excruciating exchange with journalists, denying there was a Christmas party, but not saying which parts of the reports were incorrect.
The official line was: “We don’t recognise these accounts.”
One journalist goes as far as asking if the spokesperson was invited or not.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris insisted: “All guidance was followed completely during Number 10”
December 2: Families of those who died from Covid say they’re “sickened” by the party
Safiah Ngah, a spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families, told the BBC: “My Dad died in February from Covid-19, despite being in good health. The last Christmas period is sadly one I will never forget.
“To think that just a few miles away, No 10 was throwing a ‘Christmas Party’, with no care for the rules they had set, is sickening.”
But Boris Johnson, asked about the party that day, said he wouldn’t be giving reporters any further details “because I have told you” what happened.
December 3: Police are asked to investigate the Downing Street party
Labour MP Barry Gardiner wrote to Met Commissioner Cressida Dick, asking the force to investigate the party.
On BBC’s Question Time, the audience laughed at vaccines minister Maggie Throup, who defends the party by insisting “all guidance was followed,” dismissing the reports as “rumour and hearsay”, and saying she wasn’t aware of the party.
December 4: The Met “considers” complaints over the party
In response to complaints by Gardiner and fellow MP Neil Coyle, the Met said it would “consider the correspondence received”, but added that it does not usually investigate “retrospective breaches of the Covid-19 regulations.”
A statement from Scotland Yard read: “The Metropolitan Police Service is aware of widespread reporting and has received correspondence relating to alleged breaches of the health protection regulations at a government building on two dates in November and December 2020.
“It is our policy not to routinely investigate retrospective breaches of the COVID-19 regulations; we will however consider the correspondence received.”
December 5: Dominic Raab says a hypothetical Downing Street party would have “clearly” broken the rules
Dominic Raab, in a valiant but useless attempt to make things better, told Andrew Marr that a “formal party” would have clearly broken rules, and would have been the “wrong thing to do” but didn’t happen.
He dismissed the reports as “unsubstantiated, anonymous claims,” and argued that was the reason Downing Street could not be specific with its denials.
“If something unsubstantiated from anonymous sources actually materialised, then of course it would be wrong,” he said.
December 6: Dominic Cummings and Gary Neville join the action
Former Downing Street aide Dominic Cummings, who left his job just before the party in question, joined the fray to claim that lobby journalists also attended parties in the Number 10 flat.
He declined to say who, exactly, these journalists are.
That day, the prime minister’s spokesman reiterated the government’s denial: “There was not a party and Covid rules have been followed at all times.”
But asked to clarify how the claim that all rules were followed at any event the previous year actually works, the spokesman added: “I don’t need to get into the positions we’ve taken. It is simply just a statement of fact.”
Meanwhile, Gary Neville spoke to mounting anger when he said: “Last Xmas was a misery. Listening to him standing up there telling us what we couldn’t do. Families not seeing each other, loved ones dying alone. Whilst him and his cronies party in a tax payer funded residence.”
December 7: A video of a mock Downing Street press conference, where aides joke and rehearse how to answer questions about the party, is released by ITV News
A week after the story originally broke, there is no sign of it going away. A video emerged of Jacob Rees-Mogg at a think tank event joking about the party, saying: “This party is not going to be investigated by the police in a year’s time.”
Somehow, this was not the most damaging video of the day.
In a mock press conference held days after the party, Downing Street officials prepare how to answer questions about the party, joking about “cheese and wine” and laughing when they cannot think of an explanation.
This kicked the story into overdrive. Ant and Dec sent for the Prime Minister on I’m A Celeb, directly addressing a monologue to Johnson.
December 8: Ministers cancel media appearances and PMQs
In the wake of the video, government ministers due to appear on the morning media round suddenly discovered they were busy.
Sajid Javid, who was due to appear on BBC Breakfast to mark the anniversary of the vaccine rollout, did a no-show and was replaced by an empty chair. Good Morning Britain employed the same tactic.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, Johnson apologised for the “impression” the clip gave, and said he had asked the cabinet secretary to look into the matter.
Keir Starmer said that “even Ant and Dec are ahead of the prime minister”, and called on Johnson to admit the party happened and commit to handing over any evidence to the police.
Later that afternoon, a tearful Allegra Stratton resigns. Most recently, Stratton was the government’s official COP26 spokeswoman and afterwards a government spokeswoman. In a statement delivered outside her house, she says she will regret the video for the rest of her days.
December 9 – The official inquiry is outlined and MPs ask questions about Stratton’s resignation
After Boris Johnson’s commons announcement, it is established that three parties will be established: Two at Downing Street on November 27 and December 18, and another at the Department for Education on December 10
In the House of Commons, Labour MP Fleur Anderson askes the obvious question raised by Allegra Stratton’s resignation: “If there was no party, why did Allegra Stratton feel the need to resign?”
December 10 – Reports emerge that Number 10’s director of communications gave a speech at the party
Both Sky and the BBC report that Jack Doyle, Number 10’s director of communications gave a speech and handed out awards at the Christmas party.
Questioning whether Doyle – whose job is to lead the government’s messaging response to stories like this – can stay in his job, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg writes: “This week that message has misfired, which makes his confirmed attendance a very big problem.
“And as government spinners over the years have often found, there is one fundamental error which they cannot make. That’s to become part of the story themselves, an uncomfortable position that Boris Johnson’s press chief now finds himself in.”
In an interview with the Telegraph, Keir Starmer urges Tory MPs to get rid of Boris Johnson. He says Johnson is “‘unfit for office, it isn’t going to change.”
Big Issue Group is creating new solutions through enterprise to unlock opportunities for the 14.5 million people living in poverty to earn, learn and thrive. Big Issue Group brings together our media and investment initiatives as well as a diverse and pioneering range of new solutions, all of which aim to dismantle poverty by creating opportunity.
Learn how you can change lives today.