Top ministers pull out of morning interviews as government dodges questions on leaked 'Xmas party'

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·Freelance Writer
·5 min read
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  • Sajid Javid
    British politician (born 1969)
  • Boris Johnson
    Boris Johnson
    Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since 2019
  • Allegra Stratton
    British political aide, writer, and former journalist
LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 30: Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to representatives from British food and drink companies during an event in Downing Street on November 30, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Justin Tallis - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson faces tough questions over the leaked footage of government aides laughing about a Christmas party last year. (Getty)

Senior government ministers have pulled out of key broadcast interviews this morning following the emergence of leaked footage showing government aides joking about a Christmas party last year.

In footage obtained by ITV News and released on Tuesday, the prime minister’s then-press secretary Allegra Stratton and adviser Ed Oldfield, along with other aides, were filmed laughing about a “fictional” Downing Street party in December 2020 – when much of England was under strict lockdown restrictions.

Health secretary Sajid Javid was due to be appear on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday morning but the programme said he cancelled after the footage emerged.

Presenter Nick Robinson said: “We were expecting to speak to the health secretary Sajid Javid this morning but we were told just a few minutes after that video emerged that no minister would be available to speak on the programme today.”

Javid was also due on BBC1, Sky News and Times Radio, as well as other media outlets.

Vaccines minister Maggie Throup is also understood to have pulled out of a planned round of regional television interviews.

The leaked footage shows Stratton answering questions at a mock press conference on 22 December about a party the previous Friday – the date of the alleged COVID rule-breaking gathering which is said to have been attended by dozens of colleagues while social mixing indoors was banned in London under Tier 3 restrictions.

Health secretary Sajid Javid pulled out of broadcast interviews on Wednesday morning. (Getty)
Health secretary Sajid Javid pulled out of broadcast interviews on Wednesday morning. (Getty)

During a rehearsal, filmed as part of a subsequently-abandoned plan for Stratton to lead televised press briefings, the following conversation can be heard:

Ed Oldfield, special adviser to the PM who was pretending to be a journalist asking a question, says: “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night. Do you recognise those reports?”

Allegra Stratton: “I went home. [Laughing]. Hold on, hold on... erm..."

Oldfield: Would the prime minister condone having a Christmas Party?

Stratton [laughing]: What's the answer?

Oldfield (laughing]: I don't know.

A third person in the room: "It wasn't a party. It was cheese and wine."

[General laughing]

Stratton: "Is cheese and wine alright? It was a business meeting."

[General laughing]

Unknown person: "No! Joking!"

Stratton: "This is recorded. This fictional party was a business meeting … and it was not socially distanced.”

Watch: Starmer urges PM to 'be honest' about Tory Christmas party

Boris Johnson and multiple ministers have repeatedly denied that any lockdown rules were broken, which means the PM is expected to face difficult questions at PMQs over whether he has told the truth.

Former health secretary Matt Hancock repeatedly denied that the prime minister was at the party himself, during an appearance on Good Morning Britain (GMB) on Wednesday morning.

Hancock said he had no knowledge of what may or may not have happened at the event, telling the programme: “I don’t know anything about the party.

“I’ve read the papers. But I don’t know anything else about it. I wasn’t invited. I wasn’t there.”

He added: “What I know is that the prime minister said that no rules were broken. And nobody’s suggesting that he was at this party.”

While ministers are staying silent, some Tory MPs have broken cover to criticise the government for having the gathering while the rest of the country were told to stay at home.

Veteran Tory Sir Roger Gale declared that the situation bore “all the hallmarks of another ‘Barnard Castle’ moment” – a reference to the prime minister’s former aide Dominic Cummings driving 260 miles during strict lockdown conditions last year.

The North Thanet MP tweeted: “No 10 clearly has some serious questions to answer. Fast."

Senior Conservative Charles Walker added: "The No 10 party means that any future lockdowns will be advisory, whatever the law says."

Tory education committee head Robert Halfon said those featured in the video should apologise for “insensitivity”.

He added that he takes the PM at his word that no rules were broken “until proved otherwise".

Meanwhile, sources in Downing Street described the revelations as "pretty disastrous", according to the Financial Times.

A Whitehall source told BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg that having the party "looks hypocritical" and that the PM "doesn’t know what is going on".

Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, said the leaked video indicates that Johnson has “not been straight” with the public and called on the PM to “come clean and apologise”.

“People across the country followed the rules even when that meant being separated from their families, locked down and – tragically for many – unable to say goodbye to their loved ones,” he said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson observes an early morning Merseyside Police raid on a home in Liverpool as part of 'Operation Toxic' to infiltrate County Lines drug dealings on December 6, 2021. (Photo by Christopher Furlong / POOL / AFP) (Photo by CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson has previously denied a Christmas party took place. (Getty)

“They had a right to expect that the government was doing the same. To lie and to laugh about those lies is shameful.”

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary David Lammy also called on Johnson to “come clean” with the British public. telling the Today programme: “It really is quite unacceptable that this is seen as something that is sort of humorous, or something that isn’t serious, or something that suggests that there can be one rule for a prime minister and those in No 10 and another rule for the British public.”

The Metropolitan Police confirmed officers are reviewing the leaked video in relation to “alleged breaches” of coronavirus regulations.

In response to ITV’s report, a Downing Street spokesman said: “There was no Christmas party. COVID rules have been followed at all times.”

The leaked footage comes as the Department for Education (DfE) admitted it held a social gathering of staff in the lead-up to Christmas in contravention to coronavirus social-distancing rules.

The Mirror reported that former education secretary Gavin Williamson threw a party and delivered a short speech at the event, which took place on 10 December – while London was in Tier 2, which banned social mixing between households.

A DfE spokeswoman said: “While this was work-related, looking back we accept it would have been better not to have gathered in this way at that particular time.”

Watch: Boris Johnson declines to repeat official denial about staff party at No 10

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