What did you get for Secret Santa this yr? Boris Johnson, the U.Okay.’s Prime Minister, obtained a sequence of nasty surprises, all of them worse than a lump of coal. Last week, a damning video from final yr, during which aides joked a few social gathering held at Downing Street whereas the nation was in deep lockdown, went viral, sending Johnson right into a tailspin of denials and apologies. In the clip, which was first uncovered by ITV News, Allegra Stratton, then Johnson’s press secretary, takes questions from colleagues at a mock press convention. (They had been training for a briefing that by no means occurred.) Stratton, trying skilled in a pointy black blazer, stands at a podium flanked by Union Jack flags. “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night,” Ed Oldfield, a particular adviser to the Prime Minister, says. “Do you recognize those reports?”
The response is excruciating. Stratton seems amused, after which conflicted, like a toddler realizing a recreation has gone significantly incorrect. “I went home,” she says, and laughs nervously. And then, “Hold on, hold on.” She appears genuinely uncertain of how one can reply. When Oldfield tries once more—“Would the Prime Minister condone having a Christmas party?”—Stratton pauses, after which breaks right into a disbelieving smile, as if it had been a trick query. She seems stumped. “What’s the answer?” she asks. Someone else affords, “It wasn’t a party—it was cheese and wine.” Stratton asks, “Is cheese and wine all right?” She provides, “It was a business meeting.” Everyone laughs. Then Stratton says, “This is recorded,” and collects herself. “This fictional party was a business meeting,” she says, after which dissolves into a smile, “and it was not socially distanced.”
Rumors of a celebration in Downing Street had been circling for days. On November 30th, the Daily Mirror revealed a story, by Pippa Crerar, claiming that Johnson’s administration had allowed a “festive bash” to go forward on December 18th, 2020. (Johnson himself didn’t attend, the story mentioned.) “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,” Crerar wrote. The story additionally talked about a “leaving do” for an aide, on November 27th, at which Johnson gave a speech, and a celebration on November 13th, the day Dominic Cummings, till then Johnson’s chief adviser, left Downing Street together with his possessions in a field. (“They were all getting totally plastered,” a supply informed the Mirror.) Reports of further events throughout lockdown have surfaced: December 10th, on the Department for Education; December 14th, on the Conservative Campaign Headquarters; a Christmas quiz on the Cabinet Office.
The merry-making allegations hold coming, with growing specificity. (When partying is a criminal offense, each festive element is salacious.) Late final week, ITV News reported that Jack Doyle, Johnson’s director of communications, had addressed about fifty folks on the December 18th social gathering and given out end-of-the-year awards to members of the press workplace. Over the weekend, a photograph of Johnson internet hosting a quiz on Zoom beneath a portrait of Margaret Thatcher made headlines, partly as a result of the aides seated nearest to him are usually not socially distanced. (It didn’t assist that they had been sporting tinsel and a Santa hat, respectively.) There had been claims, in a piece from the Mirror, that a few of these collaborating within the Zoom quiz did so from the workplace, in teams of six, as a substitute of at residence. “They answered questions on subjects ranging from the history of Downing Street to lyrics of Christmas tunes,” the Mirror reported. (Johnson denied any wrongdoing however mentioned that the occasion can be investigated.)
If all this speak of Santa hats and Christmas quizzes sounds a little bit grinch-like, it’s solely due to the context. On the 16th of December final yr, two days earlier than the alleged social gathering at Downing Street, London moved into a better degree of COVID restrictions generally known as Tier 3. Indoor social gatherings had been banned. Wedding receptions had been banned. Holiday events had been banned. The festive season was, successfully, a bust. As the BBC and different retailers have identified, the federal government steering on the time was specific, studying “Although there are exemptions for work purposes, you must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity.” Johnson himself appealed to the general public on the 16th, saying, “This Christmas it is vital that everyone exercises the greatest possible personal responsibility.”
And it wasn’t simply events. With some 5 hundred folks dying every day from the virus, visits to care houses final December had been restricted. Hospitals had been overwhelmed. Saying goodbye to family members was generally not possible. The nature of on a regular basis life had warped and shrunk, with important limitations positioned on pubs, eating places, gyms, and theatres. The metropolis heart was silent. On December 19th, Johnson introduced even additional restrictions. London moved into Tier 4, and an earlier reprieve to permit as much as three households to collect over the Christmas interval was referred to as off within the metropolis. Now out of doors social gatherings of greater than two folks had been banned, too. The public was requested to remain at residence except completely mandatory, and most of the people did.
The Johnson administration’s response to the allegations has been sometimes evasive. First, he mentioned there was no social gathering. Then he mentioned that no guidelines had been damaged. Kit Malthouse, the crime-and-policing minister, informed the BBC, “I don’t even know if an event took place, but if it did that no rules were broken.” When the video of the mock press convention got here out a number of days later, Johnson expressed shock. “I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing No. 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures,” he informed Parliament final week. “I was also furious to see that clip.” (Stratton resigned that day, in a tearful video filmed exterior her London residence.) Johnson apologized for “the offense that it has caused,” however mentioned that he had been “repeatedly assured” that “there was no party, and that no COVID rules were broken.” He had requested the Cabinet secretary, Simon Case, to research. “It goes without saying that if those rules were broken then there will be disciplinary action for all those involved,” he mentioned.
Does it go with out saying? Johnson’s life is so filled with contradictions and distractions that it may be laborious to maintain monitor. The following day, a Thursday, the Conservative Party was fined seventeen thousand and eight hundred kilos for failing to precisely report the supply of funding for the refurbishment of Johnson’s Downing Street residence. That similar day, Johnson turned a father for a minimum of the seventh time. (The whole variety of his kids is in doubt.) These occasions haven’t helped issues. Recent polls present that voter belief in Johnson is falling. Labour’s long-standing cry has been “It’s one rule for them, another for the rest of us.” Over the weekend, Keir Starmer, Labour’s chief, referred to as Johnson “the worst possible leader at the worst possible time.” Last week, Labour retweeted the clip of the mock press convention with the remark “They’re lying to you and they’re laughing at you.”
All that is coming because the Omicron variant sweeps throughout the U.Okay., with an estimated 2 hundred thousand new infections a day. This week, Johnson confronted a big rebel from members of his personal social gathering as he tried to implement a sequence of coronavirus restrictions that embody obligatory vaccinations for N.H.S. staff in England, sporting masks in most indoor areas, and exhibiting proof of vaccination or a unfavourable take a look at to enter indoor venues, together with night time golf equipment. But the general public might not be within the temper for brand spanking new guidelines after studying of No. 10’s transgressions. On Friday, John Bercow, a former speaker of the House of Commons, called Johnson a “serial dissembler” and “habitual liar.” “If there isn’t a basic level of trust in the most senior minister in the government, it’s very difficult to operate a democratic polity at all,” he informed “Good Morning Britain.” “This guy stinks in the nostrils of decent people.” The public, in spite of everything, likes a celebration, too.