British Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologised and his adviser resigned 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.
For more than a week, Johnson and his team have repeated that no rules were broken in late 2020 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, he said he was furious about the video, which was shown by ITV late on Tuesday, but that he had been repeatedly assured there had not been a party.
Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer accused Johnson of “taking the public for fools”, while Ian Blackford of the Scottish National Party called for Johnson to resign.
It is the latest misstep by an administration that has been criticised for its handling of a sleaze scandal, the awarding of COVID contracts, the refurbishment of Johnson’s Downing Street flat and the chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan.
With reports that the government could implement tougher COVID-19 measures as early as Thursday to try to slow the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant of the coronavirus, it could also persuade many people to ignore any new rules.
“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 were 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”.
In leaked footage aired by ITV on Tuesday, Allegra Stratton – who was then Johnson’s press secretary – was shown at a 2020 Downing Street rehearsal for a daily briefing laughing and joking about a reported gathering.
In the video, a Johnson adviser asked 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, said, “I went home.” She then laughed and smiled. “Hold on. Hold on. Um. Er. Arh.” She appears lost for words and looks up.
Stratton, who was most recently the government’s COP26 climate summit spokesperson, tendered her resignation on Wednesday.
In a tearful statement, Stratton acknowledged that her comments “seemed to make light of the rules” and said she would “regret those remarks for the rest of my days”.
“I understand the anger and frustration that people feel,” she said, while not specifying whether a party took place.
At the time of the Downing Street gathering, tens of millions of people across the United Kingdom were banned from meeting close family and friends for a traditional Christmas celebration – or even from bidding farewell to dying relatives.
Nearly 146,000 people have died from COVID in the UK and Johnson is weighing up whether to toughen curbs after the discovery of the new Omicron coronavirus variant.
“The prime minister has been caught red-handed,” Starmer said in an exchange with Johnson on the floor of the House of Commons.
Conservative Party lawmaker Roger Gale said that if politicians had been deliberately misled about the party then it would be a resignation matter.
Thousands of people in the UK have been fined since early 2020 for breaking restrictions by holding illegal gatherings.
London’s Metropolitan Police force said officers were reviewing the leaked video in relation to “alleged breaches” of coronavirus regulations.