A general atmosphere of light scandal is part of the package — and for many, part of the appeal — when it comes to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. But even the man who has mastered wriggling out of sticky political situations that would maroon normal politicians is having a tough time withstanding controversy these days.
The latest crisis involves a verboten Christmas party. Last month, tabloid The Daily Mirror reported that top Johnson staff — though not the man himself — attended a crowded holiday celebration on December 18, 2020, where, as the paper put it, “officials knocked back glasses of wine during a Christmas quiz and a Secret Santa while the rest of the country was forced to stay at home.”
After a week of confusing and conflicting denials from 10 Downing Street — some said no rules were broken at the event in question, while the prime minister’s spokesman said that “there was no Christmas party” at all – ITV uncovered a damning video. In the clip, dated a few days after the alleged event, Johnson’s then-spokesperson Allegra Stratton answers mock questions from an adviser about it. “Would the prime minister condone having a Christmas party?” the adviser asks. She chuckles knowingly and responds, “What’s the answer?” Later, after fed dissembling answers by other advisers, she laughingly remarks that “this fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.”
(Stratton, who more recently served as an aide to Johnson, resigned on Wednesday.)
While gleefully hosting a potential superspreader event may have been standard procedure for certain U.S. presidents last year, in England it would have counted as a pretty major deal, given just how strict the COVID restrictions imposed by Johnson’s own government were back then. At the time of the alleged party, socially distanced business meetings of up to 30 people were allowed, but not large social gatherings. There were reportedly 40 to 50 people at the Downing Street holiday party with no social distancing.
The affair recalls a similar incident from earlier last year, when dark-arts strategist Dominic Cummings visited his parents’ house despite strict lockdown rules at the time, causing a major headache for Johnson. (Cummings has since turned against Johnson and now alleges that another forbidden party was held at the his personal residence in November 2020.)
During prime minister’s “Question Time,” on Wednesday, Johnson said that he had been told that a party did not occur and that a Cabinet secretary would be investigating the matter. However, the investigation will conveniently be restricted to the December 18 gathering, perhaps sparing Johnson from maximum political harm.
Johnson has already been damaged this year by allegations that he used money from a party donor to help pay for improvements to his fiancée’s apartment and by another scandal involving Tory lawmakers who were paid lobbying fees when they served in government. Still, Johnson maintains a healthy majority in Parliament, and though recent polls show Labour pulling even with the Tories, an election is not in the offing anytime soon.
Also on Wednesday, Johnson announced a new round of COVID restrictions for the Delta-variant-battered U.K., in what some suspected was a ploy to change the subject from his and his staff’s personal affairs. One anti-restriction Conservative lawmaker called it a “diversionary tactic.”