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8 December 2021

Downing Street’s Christmas party mess prevents it from fighting the pandemic

With the government in hiding, ministers will not be able to communicate public health messages at a crucial moment.

By Stephen Bush

Footage has emerged of the Prime Minister’s aides joking about holding a Christmas party during lockdown, just four days after the event is alleged to have taken place on 18 December last year. Downing Street continues to deny that there was a party: a denial with all of the believability, but none of the charm, of a chocolate-covered toddler insisting they didn’t eat everything in the box.  

The video shows aides rehearsing for Downing Street’s daily televised press conferences (which were ultimately abandoned before transmission). Ed Oldfield, one of the Prime Minister’s special advisers, asks Allegra Stratton, then the PM’s press secretary: “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night — do you recognise those reports?” Stratton pauses, smiles and says: “I went home.” Oldfield asks: “Would the Prime Minister condone having a Christmas party?” She laughs and asks: “What’s the answer?”

With aides chuckling among themselves, someone else present says. “It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine.” Stratton responds: “Is cheese and wine all right? It was a business meeting … this fictional party was a business meeting … it was not socially distanced.” 

The government has essentially fled the airwaves: there was no minister on BBC Breakfast, no minister on the Good Morning Britain sofa, and no minister on the Today programme. Nervous Conservative MPs fear that the political ramifications will be worse than those from Dominic Cummings’s trip to Barnard Castle, after which the party’s double-digit poll lead collapsed, and the ratings of senior ministers also fell.  

Will it be the same story this time? Well, maybe, maybe not. Magic 8-Ball says: ask again later.

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More important than any political fallout, however, is the fact that government ministers can’t now go an air to encourage booster uptake, or to communicate other important public health messages, for fear of being asked about the video.

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If another lockdown becomes necessary to buy time for more booster shots, the government may feel unable to risk the political damage of having to explain why it’s lockdown for you and me, and cheese and wine for the Downing Street team. As we head into an uncertain few weeks, the government may well be fighting Omicron with both hands tied behind its back.