The leaked clip of Downing Street staff joking about a rule-breaking Christmas party dominated PMQs today as expected. Keir Starmer and backbench MPs used the opportunity to express their outrage and the outrage felt by the public over the blatant disregard for Covid restrictions by a group of people who helped design and implement them. The Labour leader devoted all six of his questions to the issue this afternoon. He highlighted that it was Boris Johnson’s “personal spokesperson”, Allegra Stratton, remarking in the video that the gathering was “not socially distanced”. Starmer asked: “Surely the Prime Minister isn’t now going to start pretending that the first he knew about this was last night?”
Johnson apologised only “for the impression that has been given”, and claimed himself to be “sickened and furious”. He told parliament that there would be an internal investigation but added, several times, that he has been “repeatedly assured that the rules were not broken”. The Labour leader highlighted the plight of one of many people following the rules in tough circumstances last year, not visiting her ill mum who went into hospital the same day No 10 staff joked about the party 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?”
Referring to the “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. He called on the Prime Minister to support the police and Crown Prosecution Service by “handing over everything he knows about parties in Downing Street to the Met Police”. Johnson said he would do so, before claiming that the Labour leader was playing politics with the issue, and had been determined to “muddy the waters, to confuse the public and cause needless confusion over the rules” throughout the health crisis – something surely done more effectively by Johnson last week not denying that a gathering did take place but that none of the Covid rules were broken.
There is little doubt that Johnson is on the wrong side of public opinion over this breach of rules, at the heart of government, while millions struggled and sacrificed to maintain the restrictions. His claims of Starmer playing politics will do little to deflect the anger. Patience with Johnson is wearing thin. His devil-may-care attitude to rules, which has characterised his career, is particularly ill-suited to a pandemic where the effectiveness of restrictions rely on compliance.
Trying to justify the need for further investigation into the issue, Johnson said: “I understand the public anxiety about this and I understand public indignation, but there is a risk of doing a grave injustice to people who were frankly obeying the rules… That is why the Cabinet Secretary will be conducting an investigation.” But he is missing the point. While the authorities have and will continue to prosecute people for breaches, it is impossible to police them all. We are relying on people to show solidarity with each other, following the rules not out of a fear of getting caught but because of our obligation to help each other stay safe. The rules matter, solidarity matters and although the Prime Minister claims to understand, his protestations fail to grasp why people are upset and angry. Announcing an internal investigation while claiming not to know whether parties took place in his own home and place of work will not cut it.
Update, 3.50pm: Allegra Stratton has this afternoon resigned from her role as the Prime Minister’s spokesman for COP26, offering her “profound apologies” for the remarks she is captured making in the footage. The now former senior staffer did not take the opportunity to admit that the party took place.