Senior Conservatives have warned that the leaked footage of Downing Street aides joking about holding a Christmas party risked being the next “Barnard Castle moment” that would damage public compliance with coronavirus restrictions.
No.10 is in crisis mode this morning after a video emerged of senior staff joking about holding a Christmas party during last year’s lockdown which it had previously denied.
The footage, obtained by ITV News, shows the prime minister’s former press secretary, Allegra Stratton, holding a mock press conference with colleagues who question her about “a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night” — days after it was alleged to have taken place on December 18, 2020.
At the rehearsal with Stratton on December 22, the prime minister’s aide Ed Oldfield asked her: “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night, do you recognise those reports?”
Stratton replied, “I went home” before discussing with colleagues whether the event was a “cheese and wine” evening.
She added: “This fictional party was a business meeting … and it was not socially distanced.”
Despite the release of the footage, Downing Street is still insisting no party took place.
In response to the footage, a spokesman said: “There was no Christmas party. Covid rules have been followed at all times.”
Roger Gale was one of a number of Tory MPs to express anger at the leaked video, likening it to Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle during the first lockdown, in which the senior adviser breached the “stay at home” order by travelling to Durham.
Gale said he did not have a problem with making jokes as seen in the video, but added: “What I do have a quarrel with is the idea that this party — and I’m told by sources that food was taken in, drinks were taken in, that entertainment was had — and if that is so, that pretty much sounds to me like a party.
“This is a Barnard Castle moment, potentially.
“We cannot say one thing and do another.
“We have to be believed, we have to be trusted — because as the end of the day, we have to carry people with us to do or not do some things that may be very inconvenient indeed.”
Fellow Tory MP Peter Aldous also said the episode risked being a “re-reun of the Dominic Cummings saga”.
“This story has been rumbling away over the last few weeks and my inclination was to accept what the prime minister had said, that no rules had been broken and give them the benefit of the doubt,” he told the Lowestoft Journal.
“The news overnight and the release of the video does cast the situation in a different light.
“It does look very bad and gives the impression there is one rule for them and another for the rest of us.”
The upset comes as reports circulate that the government is poised to activate its Plan B set of restrictions to deal with the growing threat posed by the omicron coronavirus variant.
As of Tuesday the total number of confirmed cases of the omicron variant stood at 437.
So-called Plan B restrictions would include reinstating guidance to work from home and using vaccine passports in some settings.
Gale said the possible introduction of such matters was why the Downing Street video was significant for the public.
“We’ve got to carry the country with us for everybody’s sake, for the sake of people’s lives,” he said.
“That matters. So this background noise that’s going on at the moment has to be put behind us.
“And the only person who can do that definitively, I believe is the prime minister from the despatch box today.”
Senior backbencher Charles Walker warned that the government would now find it “almost impossible” to introduce new Covid-19 restrictions.
“I think now that, going forward, any measures will be advisory,” he told Times Radio.
“I think it would be very difficult to enshrine them in law and then once again ask our poor police forces to enforce them.”
“To be very proscriptive about this now, particularly as we’ve had such a successful vaccine rollout… is much more difficult, and was always going to be much more difficult. And the events of the last 24 hours make it probably almost impossible now.”