U.K. PM Apologizes for Staff Joking About Office Party Amid Lockdown

LONDON (Reuters) -
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks outside Downing Street in London, Britain, December 8, 2021. (REUTERS/Peter Nicholls)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologized on Wednesday after a video surfaced showing his staff laughing and joking about a party in Downing Street during a COVID-19 lockdown in December of last year when such festivities were banned.

Hours later the main aide featured in the video, Johnson‘s press secretary at the time, Allegra Stratton, resigned as an adviser to the prime minister. In a tearful statement, she said she would regret the remarks she made in the video for the rest of her days.

For more than a week, Johnson and his team have repeated that no rules were broken in late 2020 after the Mirror newspaper reported there had been several parties including a wine-fueled gathering of 40 to 50 people.

On Wednesday, Johnson told parliament that he was furious about the video, which was first shown by ITV late on Tuesday, but said he had been repeatedly assured that no party took place at Downing Street, his office and official residence.

Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer accused Johnson of “taking the public for fools”, while Ian Blackford of the Scottish National Party told Johnson to resign.

It is the latest misstep by an administration which has been criticized over its handling of a sleaze scandal, the awarding of COVID contracts, the refurbishment of Johnson‘s Downing Street apartment and the chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan.

Amid reports that the government could implement tougher COVID-19 measures as early as Thursday to slow the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant, news of the scandal could also discourage people from following any new rules.

“I apologize unreservedly for the offence that it has caused up and down the country, and I apologize for the impression that it gives,” Johnson told parliament.

Disciplinary action would be taken if it was found that rules had been broken, he said.

“But 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 also pledged to “get on with the job”, accusing the opposition for trying to “muddy the waters about events or non-events of a year ago”.

After days of denials, the video aired by ITV showed Stratton at a 2020 Downing Street rehearsal for a daily briefing, during which she laughed and joked about a reported party that secretly took place during a national lockdown.

On Wednesday, Stratton made a tearful statement to media outside her house, saying she was resigning from her current role as Johnson‘s spokeswoman for COP26 and climate change.

“I understand the anger and frustration that people feel. To all of you who lost loved ones, who endured intolerable loneliness and who struggled with your businesses – I am truly sorry,” she said.

At the time of the Downing Street gathering, tens of millions of people across Britain were banned from meeting close family or friends for a holiday party – and even from bidding farewell to dying relatives.

Nearly 146,000 people have died from COVID in the United Kingdom and Johnson is weighing up whether to toughen curbs after the discovery of the new Omicron coronavirus variant.

Opposition leader Starmer said it was obvious what had happened at Downing Street.

“The prime minister has been caught red-handed,” Starmer said in an exchange with Johnson in the House of Commons.

Conservative Party lawmaker Roger Gale said that if parliament had been deliberately misled over the party, then it would be a resignation matter.

But another Conservative lawmaker said that while the mood in the ruling party was poor, there was not the strength of feeling yet for a move against Johnson.

Johnson is also facing questions about whether he sought to ensure that pets were evacuated from Kabul during the Western pullout in August while Afghan people trying to seek refuge abroad were left behind.