Boris Johnson has said he “apologises unreservedly” for a video showing Downing Street officials joking about a staff party during the peak of lockdown last December, and has promised to hand over any evidence of law-breaking to police.
At a noisy prime minister’s questions, Johnson said he had been repeatedly assured that no party took place, and that he had been “shocked” by the emergence of the video.
He promised that Simon Case, the cabinet secretary and the UK’s most senior civil servant, would investigate the circumstances surrounding the video and the facts surrounding what happened on 18 December last year.
However, later it emerged that this investigation would not cover another party believed to have taken place in Downing Street on 27 November, at which Johnson himself is said to have given a speech, or a third party alleged by former aide Dominic Cummings to have happened in the prime minister’s flat on 13 November. A spokeswoman for Carrie Johnson has previously denied there was a party in the flat on that date.
Johnson’s official spokesman also would not confirm whether Case himself had been present at the party on 18 December. The spokesman declined to say whether he personally had been at the party, and Johnson’s press secretary also declined to say whether she was present.
They did confirm that Johnson himself did not attend any such event on 13 November and stood by previous assertions that there had been no party on that date and that all Covid rules were followed.
Questioning Johnson, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, expressed incredulity at his protestations of ignorance, saying the incident had left the prime minister without “the moral authority” to ask the public to follow Covid rules.
Following the session, Ruth Davidson, the former leader of the Scottish Tories, also gave a scathing verdict on Downing Street’s conduct. “None of this is remotely defensible. Not having busy, boozy not-parties while others were sticking to the rules, unable to visit ill or dying loved ones. Nor flat-out denying things that are easily provable. Not taking the public for fools,” she tweeted.
“And today’s ‘we’ll investigate what we’ve spent a week saying didn’t happen and discipline staff for rules we continue to say weren’t broken’ was pathetic. As a Tory, I was brought up to believe in playing with a straight bat. Believe me, colleagues are furious at this, too.”
Johnson’s appearance at PMQs on Wednesday was his first response to the video, uncovered by ITV, in which his then-press secretary, Allegra Stratton, and other No 10 staff talked jokingly on 22 December last year about a staff party four days earlier, and how media questions about it could be countered.
Before taking any questions, Johnson told the Commons he was “also furious to see that clip”, saying: “I can understand how infuriating it would be to think that the people who have been setting the rules have not been following the rules.”
He continued: “I apologise unreservedly for the offence that it has caused up and down the country, and apologise for the impression that it gives.”
To jeers from the opposition benches, Johnson said he had no personal knowledge of any party. He said: “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 added: “I have asked the cabinet secretary 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.”
Starmer asked Johnson if he would be “handing over everything the government knows about parties in Downing Street to the Metropolitan police?”
Johnson replied: “Of course we will do that.”
In a further escalation of what is fast turning into a political crisis for Johnson, as he was speaking in the Commons Cummings accused the prime minister of hosting lockdown-breaking parties in his Downing Street flat.
“Will the CABSEC [Case] also be asked to investigate the *flat* party on Fri 13 Nov, the other flat parties, & the flat’s ‘bubble’ policy … ?” he tweeted.
That date – when England was in full lockdown – was the day that Cummings, Johnson’s chief adviser, was sacked by the prime minister. Cummings has already accused Johnson of lying about both staff parties and ones held in his official flat.
Starting his questions at PMQs, Starmer said it was not credible for Johnson to pretend he had known nothing. “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.”
The Labour leader used one question to highlight the case of a woman whose mother had fallen gravely ill with Covid last December and had not visited her before she died.
The woman wanted to know, Starmer said, “why did the prime minister expect her to accept that the rules allowed a Downing Street party but didn’t allow her to visit her dying mother?”
Starmer also cited the example of the Queen, who sat alone during the funeral of Prince Philip: “Leadership, sacrifice – that’s what gives leaders the moral authority to lead. Does the prime minister think he has the moral authority to lead and to ask the British people to stick to the rules?”
Johnson responded by reiterating his apology but also accusing Starmer and Labour of “playing politics” and seeking to create confusion over Covid rules.
Starmer replied: “That’s so desperate and even his own side can see it.”