Boris Johnson has ordered an investigation into claims Downing Street staff broke lockdown rules by holding a Christmas party last year and told MPs he was “furious” about footage apparently showing aides joking about it.
The Prime Minister apologised “unreservedly” for the offence caused by the footage of his then-spokeswoman Allegra Stratton at a mock press conference.
But he insisted he had been repeatedly assured “there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken”.
Mr Johnson said he had asked Cabinet Secretary Simon Case “to establish all the facts and to report back as soon as possible – and it goes without saying that if those rules were broken then there will be disciplinary action for all those involved”.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson said: “I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing No 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.
“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, and that is what I have been repeatedly assured.”
The Prime Minister’s intervention followed a week of official insistence that no party took place on December 18, 2020, when London was under Tier 3 restrictions – despite reports staff drank alcohol and exchanged secret Santa gifts.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the Prime Minister’s apology “raises more questions than answers” as he had been “caught red-handed”.
“Millions of people now think the Prime Minister was taking them for fools, that they were lied to. They are right aren’t they?”
In response to questioning from Sir Keir, the Prime Minister agreed that any evidence uncovered by the Cabinet Secrerary about parties in Downing Street would be handed over to police.
Leaked footage from No 10’s £2.6 million press briefing room emerged on Tuesday night which showed former press secretary Ms Stratton laughing as she appeared to rehearse answers to questions over a lockdown-busting Christmas party.
The video, which is reported to be from December 22 last year, refers to a party on “Friday” – which would have been December 18, the same day The Daily Mirror reported there was a staff party where games were played, food and drinks were served, and revelries went on past midnight.
The emergence of the footage – in which Ms Stratton and aides joked about how to respond to questions on the party – fuelled anger on the Tory benches about Mr Johnson’s Number 10 operation.
Sir Charles Walker, a former vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, said the Government is likely to now find it “almost impossible” to introduce “very proscriptive” Covid-19 restrictions due to the saga.
It comes amid suggestions ministers are considering moving to Plan B measures in England, such as calling for people to work from home and implementing vaccine passports.
Sir Charles told Times Radio: “I think now that, going forward, any measures will be advisory. I think it would be very difficult to enshrine them in law and then once again ask our poor police forces to enforce them.”
Former minister Tracey Crouch, MP for Chatham and Aylesford, demanded an apology, Kent Online reported.
She said: “I am fuming. My constituents have every right to be angry.”
Fellow Tory Peter Aldous, MP for Waveney, said the leaked footage looks “very bad” and casts “the situation in a different light”.
Tory peer and former Conservative Party chairwoman Sayeeda Warsi said all those present at any party should quit.
Chairman of the Commons Education Committee and Tory MP for Harlow Robert Halfon said: “I certainly think that those who were doing the video should apologise for the insensitivity of it when people were suffering and struggling all through that time.”
In the footage obtained by ITV News, Ms Stratton and adviser Ed Oldfield, along with other aides, were filmed joking about a “fictional” Downing Street party.
Mr Oldfield can be heard asking Ms Stratton: “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night, do you recognise those reports?”
Ms Stratton replied “I went home”, before appearing to consider what the correct answer should be.
During the rehearsal, filmed as part of a subsequently-abandoned plan for Ms Stratton to lead televised press briefings, one aide is heard saying: “It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine.”
“Is cheese and wine all right? It was a business meeting,” Ms Stratton replied, to laughter in the room.
Ms Stratton then noted “this is recorded”, adding: “This fictional party was a business meeting… and it was not socially distanced.”
The Metropolitan Police confirmed officers are reviewing the leaked video in relation to “alleged breaches” of coronavirus regulations.