Labour: PM “taking the public for fools” and undermining Covid rules compliance

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Labour has declared that Boris Johnson is “taking the public for fools” and warned that the Downing Street Christmas parties scandal has undermined public compliance with restrictions aimed at combatting the pandemic.

Reports emerged last week that two rule-breaking parties were held last December. Following denials from ministers, footage was leaked showing senior staffers joking about the party, four days after it is reported to have taken place.

Commenting this afternoon on indications that tougher restrictions could be introduced, a Labour spokesperson said: “It has been widely briefed that the government is going to ask us all to follow stricter restrictions later this afternoon. This is about the Prime Minister’s leadership and moral authority in asking the public to follow those types of regulations.”

Downing Street has not denied rumours that it is planning to put in place ‘plan B’, which includes introducing vaccine passports and a return to the work from home guidance, in response to the spread of the Omicron variant.

Johnson told parliament that Covid rules were not broken but did not deny a party took place in Prime Minister’s Questions last week, but he told MPs earlier today that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case will be investigating the reports.

Labour leader Keir Starmer responded by saying that it was “obvious” what had taken place, adding: “Surely the Prime Minister isn’t now going to start pretending that the first he knew about this was last night?”

Asked about the investigation into the allegations, announced by Johnson today, a Labour spokesperson spokesperson said: “You’ve got Keir’s words from in there: ‘what’s the point?’ The Prime Minister is taking the public for fools.”

Starmer’s spokesperson said he believes the Prime Minister lied. Labour also said the investigation should cover “documents” and “parties”, but No 10 told journalists today that it will relate only to one particular party that allegedly took place in December 2020, rather than all alleged parties.

The Labour spokesperson added: “He asks the Prime Minister to make a commitment to hand over anything he knew about the parties in Downing Street to the Met Police. The Prime Minister said that he would do that and we expect him to follow through.”

Asked whether Labour’s Christmas parties will go ahead, Starmer’s spokesperson replied: “We’re not routinely canceling our Christmas parties, but any Labour parties and Labour activity will be in line with the rules and also taking sensible precautions.”

Asked whether the Labour leader thinks there should be a criminal investigation into the gatherings, the aide said Starmer believes that it is “for the Met Police”. During Prime Minister’s Questions, Starmer urged Johnson to hand over “everything he knows about parties” to the police.

Referring to what he described as a “nonsense” claim from Dominic Raab that the police do not investigate matters from a year ago, Starmer pointed out that the courts are at this moment hearing cases on a dozen breaches of restrictions from last December, including those who hosted parties.

The video showed Allegra Stratton in a mock press conference in her role as Johnson’s then spokesperson. No 10 said earlier today that she is still in her current job as CO26 spokesperson and that no other staff have been suspended.

Update, 3.50pm: Allegra Stratton has resigned from her role as the Prime Minister’s spokesman for COP26, offering her “profound apologies” for her remarks in the leaked video.

The Prime Minister’s spokesperson refused to comment on what constitutes a party, whether a party in November took place, whether Johnson is aware when parties take place in his Downing Street home and whether the Cabinet Secretary tasked with investigating the allegations was as the party.

The Labour leader also highlighted the story of one person following the rules in tough circumstances last year, not visiting her ill mum who went into hospital the same day of the recording and died alone two days after Christmas.

“What Tricia wants to know is this: why did the Prime Minister expect her to accept that the rules allowed a Downing Street party but didn’t allow her to visit her dying mother?” he asked.

Several backbench MPs also used Prime Minister’s Questions this afternoon to raise the issue, including Tories. Conservative William Wragg accused Johnson of using plan B as a “diversionary tactic” to deflect attention from the scandal.

In the footage leaked on Tuesday, Stratton is seen being asked by a senior political adviser: “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night — do you recognise those reports?”

She said: “I went home.” Asked if Johnson would condone a party, she said: “What’s the answer?” Someone in the room joked that it “wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine”. Stratton replied: “Is cheese and wine all right? It was a business meeting… this fictional party was a business meeting… it was not socially distanced.”

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