It's hard to recall a more brutal set of Sundays for Boris Johnson. Today's papers are dominated by 'partygate' in one form of another, with the most worrying splash undoubtedly being the Sunday Mirror. It features an image of a Downing Street staffer dressed in tinsel taking a picture of Johnson appearing on a Zoom call to host a Christmas quiz, under the headline: 'Taking us for fools (again). Held on 15 December 2020, it came at a time when London was in Tier 2 which banned indoor mixing between households. The paper reports that the quiz was supposed to be virtual – but many staff (one source says around 70) stayed in No 10, huddling by computers, conferring on questions and knocking back fizz, wine and beer.
Official guidance at the time stated: 'You must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted by the rules in your tier.' As the Mirror notes, the image risks undermining Downing Street’s claims last week that no parties had taken place in No. 10, with the PM asserting last week: 'I can tell you guidelines were followed at all times. I’ve satisfied myself that the guidelines were followed at all times.' The party came on the same day that Keir Starmer wrote to Johnson urging him to convene a COBRA meeting to discuss the worsening covid situation, with the PM subsequently 'cancelling Christmas' with another lockdown just four days later. Not a great look then.
The drip-drip of damaging articles continues elsewhere across Fleet Street. The Sunday Times reports that the mood in No. 10 is 'dreadful' with 'fears about what else is to come'. There are more pictures which could emerge from the Christmas party, while there also tapes of a dozen or more other potentially-damaging mock press conferences conducted by Allegra Stratton. In the Sun on Sunday there's a separate story that Johnson broke Covid rules last October by staying in a restaurant with Carrie well past the 10pm curfew – and went round circulating with other parties without a mask, something which prompted other customers to keep complaining about him.
In the Sunday Express – normally a supportive paper – there are reports that Johnson could face an imminent vote of no confidence if he loses the Shropshire North by-election on Thursday, an event triggered by his botched handling of the Owen Paterson debacle. Unsurprisingly, both the Mail on Sunday and Sunday Times give prominent coverage to speculation about the contenders who could succeed him including Michael Gove, Liz Truss and Priti Patel. Matt Hancock is reported to be being talked up by, er, Matt Hancock too. And the broadcasters are getting in on the act too, with ITV reporting that they have seen pictures of the Mirror's Christmas quiz, with Downing Street staff gathered around the TV screen, watching the PM ask questions with very little social distancing. This is on top of the seven other alleged Christmas soirees which took place last year.
With questions building, pressure mounting and opponents circling, is the party over for the Johnson regime?