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21 December 2021

Boris Johnson’s advent calendar from hell

Chocolate and treats have been in short supply for the PM as he faces a political reckoning.

By The Chatterer

What was behind the window on your advent calendar today? Chocolate? A trinket? Maybe a miniature bottle of whiskey? Boris Johnson should be wishing he was so lucky. Almost every day since advent began on 28 November some fresh horror has been unveiled. Let’s take a closer look.

Behind the window on 28 November: a face mask. The day before, the first two cases of the Omicron variant had been detected in the UK. Johnson announced rules on mask-wearing, PCR tests for arrivals in the UK, and self-isolation. But Christmas 2021 would be “considerably better” than the year before, he said. The measures would be “temporary and precautionary”. That’s not the way it’s looking now.

30 November: a Santa hat. That was the day the news first broke that Johnson, his wife Carrie, and Downing St officials had attended parties in December 2020, complete with a Christmas quiz and Secret Santa. At the time London was in Tier 3, meaning people were not allowed to meet socially indoors.

1 December: a game of pass-the-parcel. More accounts of illicit Downing St parties emerged, with pressure building on the PM. But explanation came there none, neither from Johnson nor his press secretary (about whom more shortly). Both insisted that no rules had been broken.

[See also: Why Boris Johnson may pay a political price for Downing Street’s lockdown Christmas revels]

2 December: a clown costume, complete with big red nose, to match the description of Johnson attributed to French president Emmanuel Macron.   

3 December: a police officer’s whistle. Labour MPs reported Johnson to the Met for breaking lockdown rules.

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4 December: a picture of Dilyn, the Downing St dog. A rare bit of good, or at least neutral news for the PM, as his official Christmas card was released.

6 December: a copy of the ministerial code, the one Johnson was cleared of breaking by a High Court judge. The PM had overruled his ethics adviser, Alex Allan, to back the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. Last year, Allan found that Patel was bullying her staff; Johnson disagreed. Allan resigned – exit one adviser.

7 December: a platter of cheese and several bottles of wine. This was the day the video leaked of Downing St press secretary, Allegra Stratton, and other aides joking in a mock press conference about how they’d respond to allegations of a Downing St Christmas party during lockdown. “It was cheese and wine,” Stratton giggled.

8 December: a very expensive PCR test. The only thing growing faster than the calls for a proper explanation was the number of Covid cases in the UK, of the Omicron variant in particular. Johnson reacted by announcing tighter restrictions under Plan B, including PCR tests for travellers arriving in the UK, much to the fury and disgust of his backbenchers. Oh, and Allegra Stratton resigned. The only person to quit over the Downing St parties was the person who didn’t take part.

[See also: Allegra Stratton has resigned, but Johnson’s troubles are only beginning]

9 December: a pot of wallpaper paste. Johnson’s expensive refurb of the Downing St flat came back to haunt him – and his party. The Conservatives were fined £17,800 by the Electoral Commission for failing to make an accurate report of the donation that paid for, among other things, the wallpaper priced at £840 a roll. Worse still, the commission’s report suggested Johnson might have lied to his ethics adviser during the initial investigation last year.

10 December:  a pantomime dame’s costume. Johnson’s explanations grew ever more preposterous as further evidence of parties in Downing St emerged. Among those implicated: Johnson’s director of communications, Jack Doyle. And the questions about Johnson’s own involvement wouldn’t go away. “Oh no I didn’t,” he insisted. “Oh yes you did,” came the increasingly sceptical public reply.

11 December: a bottle of lukewarm fizz from Tesco Metro. That was what Downing St staff were drinking, apparently, during a Christmas quiz chaired by – Boris Johnson! Images leaked to the Daily Mirror showed him reading out questions in his office as aides sat beside him.

12 December: the Speaker’s wrath. Johnson launched his campaign for booster jabs with a pre-recorded TV statement rather than a speech in parliament or a press conference, where he could have faced awkward questions.

13 December: a very small slice of humble pie. Downing St admitted Johnson had attended the “virtual” quiz – but only briefly. So that’s all right, then.

14 December: a slap in the face. Almost 100 Conservative MPs rebelled and refused to vote in favour of the Plan B measures, including Covid passports. It was the biggest rebellion of Johnson’s leadership.

[See also: The Tory rebellion over new Covid measures shows how weak Boris Johnson has become]

17 December: a humiliating defeat. The Conservatives lost the North Shropshire by-election to the Lib Dems on a swing of 34 per cent. The only reason for the by-election was Johnson’s miscalculation, as he sought to protect Owen Paterson MP from a parliamentary suspension for breaking lobbying rules.

18 December: a letter of resignation and a stab in the back. Early in the day, Simon Case, the senior official appointed to investigate the reports of Downing St parties, stepped down after it emerged an event was held in his own office. And then at about 8pm, the story broke that David Frost, the Brexit minister, was also calling it quits. The man known as “Frostie the no-man” owes virtually his entire political career, and certainly his seat in the House of Lords, to Johnson’s patronage.

19 December: more cheese. More wine. More awkward questions. This time over a photo showing Johnson, his wife, and various others relaxing in the Downing St garden in May 2020. At the time, the rules limited social mixing between households to two people, outdoors and at a distance of at least two metres.

20 December: a political headache. Covid cases are growing rapidly; businesses are closing early and streets are deserted as people stay at home for their own safety. Measures on the table include a possible pub curfew at 8pm or even another lockdown, but Johnson can’t afford to anger his MPs by bringing in new restrictions.

If, by the time he gets to Christmas morning, all he finds in his stocking is a lump of coal, he may consider he’s getting off lightly.

[See also: Johnson’s woes make another lockdown unlikely]

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