Downing Street is in crisis mode this morning following the publication of a leaked video showing senior No. 10 staff joking about a Christmas party. The clip was recorded just four days after they are alleged to have held one in breach of Covid restrictions in place at the time. In the video of a practice press briefing filmed last Christmas, a special adviser asks the then No. 10 spokeswoman Allegra Stratton about reports 'on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night'. In response aides in the room appear to joke about how they would explain the event – asking whether 'cheese and wine' is allowed before acknowledging that they are being recorded.
The video has so far led to an angry response from members of the public as well as ministers and MPs. In a sign that ministers will struggle to write this one off as a 'Westminster Bubble' story, it makes the front of the majority of today's papers. The video has 5.5 million views on Twitter and Ant and Dec joked about it on I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here on Tuesday night. Already a Tory MP has gone public with his concerns. Senior Tory Roger Gale took to social media to say:
'The No.10 party has all the hallmarks of another ‘Barnard Castle’ moment. No.10 clearly has some serious questions to answer. Fast.'
Perhaps the most telling thing of all is the fact that no minister has been sent out on today's morning media round. Sajid Javid had been due to tour the studios to mark a year since the authorisation of the Pfizer jab but is absent. The failure of any minister to even try to defend the government points to the anger behind the scenes. Among aides and ministers, the main response is one of shock and fury.
As for Downing Street, No. 10 is still sticking to its line that there was no party – despite the video leak. This implies that they are suggesting Downing Street staff are joking about a fictional party that never happened. There is heavy scepticism across government that this line will hold – particularly given Johnson will face Keir Starmer at Prime Minister's Questions today where you can bet money the Labour leader will go on the offensive over the issue. Instead Johnson is under pressure to admit that there was a party and apologise.
It doesn't help that this isn't the only story where Downing Street are accused of being loose with the truth. Questions are also being asked over Johnson's denial that he had anything to do with the decision to try to rescue dogs from Afghanistan after a letter emerged from his PPS at the time Trudy Harrison.
The leaked video comes at a particularly bad time for the government. As concerns grow over the omicron variant, there is increased concern that the government will activate its Plan B, including the introduction of vaccine passports with further restrictions not even ruled out. Any new measures will be much harder to enforce if the public take the view that it is one rule for them another for the government. Tory MPs are already suggesting they will fight any new measures on these grounds.
As for Johnson, the times when his government has often been under the greatest pressure involve hypocrisy – the Barnard Castle row and Matt Hancock's own breach of guidelines while he was Health Secretary. If Johnson is to try to contain this, he will need a new response when he gets up to speak at the despatch box this lunchtime.