Boris Johnson has apologised “unreservedly” for leaked video footage that showed his aides joking about Christmas parties in Downing Street during lockdown, as the prime minister prepared to unveil new coronavirus restrictions.
Addressing the House of Commons on Wednesday, Johnson said cabinet secretary Simon Case would investigate media reports that a festive gathering was held in Downing Street on December 18 last year when London was under stringent Covid-19 restrictions, and such parties were banned.
Meanwhile Whitehall officials told the Financial Times that Johnson had decided to implement so-called plan B coronavirus restrictions for England, including an order to work from home and a requirement for vaccine passports at large venues.
Several people briefed on the details have said that the party in question took place. Johnson has insisted that no such party happened.
But a government video obtained by ITV News about a mock Downing Street press conference on December 22 last year showed Allegra Stratton, then Johnson’s press secretary, being asked if any Christmas parties were held.
“I went home,” she laughed, before telling her colleagues to “hold on”. Stratton asked aides present: “What’s the answer?” One suggested: “It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine.”
Johnson said at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons: “I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing Number 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures, and I can understand how infuriating it must be to think that people who have been setting the rules have not been following the rules because I was also furious to see that clip.
“I apologise unreservedly for the offence that it has caused up and down the country and I apologise for the impression that it gives.”
Stratton resigned from her position as a Downing Street adviser on Wednesday, offering a “profound apology” for her comments in the leaked video.
“My remarks seemed to make light of the rules, rules that people were doing everything to obey,” she said in a statement.
“That was never my intention. I will regret those remarks for the rest of my days and offer my profound apologies to all of you for them.”
Johnson added in parliament that he had been repeatedly told following the media reports that there was no Downing Street party, and that no Covid rules had been broken.
He said any relevant evidence from Case’s inquiry would be handed over to the Metropolitan Police.
But the inquiry will not examine reports of other Downing Street parties on November 13 and November 27.
Former education secretary Gavin Williamson was also reported to have held a Christmas party at his old department in December last year. A spokeswoman for the department confirmed a “gathering” had taken place and apologised.
Labour party leader Sir Keir Starmer accused Johnson of “taking the public for fools” over Downing Street parties, stating that the facts were “clear as day”.
“They knew there was a party, they knew it was against the rules, they knew they couldn’t admit it, and they thought it was funny,” Starmer told MPs.
Opinion polling on Wednesday highlighted the damage the fiasco has done to Johnson’s standing. A survey from ComRes stated that a majority of voters thought he should resign as prime minister, including a third of Tory voters.
Another survey by Opinium stated that just 9 per cent of voters believe the prime minister’s insistence that no parties took place in Downing Street.
Media reports of rule-breaking by senior government figures have prompted fears that the imposition of fresh coronavirus restrictions could be undermined.
Johnson’s expected move to introduce new measures reflects growing concern at the rapid spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, but government officials also said he wanted to regain the initiative after days of disastrous media coverage about Downing Street parties.
One said the move to plan B, much earlier than expected, was a “dead cat” move by Johnson to distract attention from the furore over the leaked video.
Ministers on the government’s Covid-19 operations committee were due to meet to decide on the exact measures.
New restrictions could be announced at a press conference later on Wednesday, with relevant regulations put before parliament on Thursday, according to government insiders.
Johnson told MPs that “no decisions will be taken without consulting the cabinet”, but did not deny that further measures would be implemented.
The prospect of tighter restrictions pushed the pound 0.4 per cent lower to $1.318, its weakest level of the year against the dollar.
Fresh restrictions are likely to incur the anger from Conservative MPs who are sceptical about such measures.
William Wragg, Conservative chair of the public administration and constitutional affairs select committee, described the introduction of vaccine passports as a “diversionary tactic” from Downing Street parties.
Neil Ferguson, one of the country’s leading scientists on coronavirus, said cases of Omicron were doubling “at least every three days” and could overtake the Delta variant of coronavirus by Christmas.
Additional reporting by Tommy Stubbington