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8 December 2021

What we learned from an extraordinary Prime Minister’s Questions

By Ailbhe Rea

Boris Johnson issued a non-apology… and threw his staff under the bus

Boris Johnson began an extraordinary Prime Minister’s Questions today with a statement to address the furore over the alleged party held in Downing Street on 18 December. With the eyes of the country, the opposition, and his own party keenly on him, the Prime Minister adopted a strategy of apologising, but distanced himself utterly from Allegra Stratton, his then spokeperson, and the rest of his staff in Downing Street, saying he was “sickened” by the video footage that has emerged of them apparently laughing about a party in a mock press conference last December. 

“I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing number 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures,” Johnson told the House of Commons. “I can understand how infuriating it must be to think that the people who have been setting the rules have not been following the rules, because I was also furious to see that clip… I apologise unreservedly for the offense that it has caused up and down the country and I apologise for the impression that it gives.”

Nothing happened… but there will be a cabinet secretary investigation into what happened

The Prime Minister repeated what he has been “assured of”: that “there was no party and that no covid rules were broken”. He announced that he has asked the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, who is the most senior civil servant in Downing Street and also head of the civil service, “to establish all the facts and report back as soon as possible”, committing to “disciplinary action for all involved if rules are found to have been broken”. The careful wording sees the Prime Minister continue to maintain that nothing happened, but that if it did, he had nothing to do with it, and heads will roll further down the food chain.

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Boris Johnson has committed to handing over information to the police…

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While there are questions over the cabinet secretary’s ability freely to conduct an investigation that could include the Prime Minister himself, the Labour leader Keir Starmer managed to secure a commitment – seemingly off-the-cuff – from Johnson into handing over all the information he has about Christmas parties in Downing Street to the Metropolitan Police. Crucially, this commitment on the record does not just extend to what happened on 18 December, but to “parties”, plural, in Downing Street. 

… And issued a categorical denial that there was another party in Downing Street on 13 November

In combination with Johnson’s commitment to handing over information to the police, the most significant answer came in response to a question from Labour backbencher Catherine West, who bounced the Prime Minister into denying – with a flat “no” – that another party took place in Downing Street on 13 November, during lockdown last year. This was a snap response to a tweet by Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s disgraced ex-senior adviser, fifteen minutes into Prime Minister’s Questions, alleging that there was a party in the Downing Street flat on that date – which was, incidentally, the day when Cummings was fired. 

After a delicate dance by government for a week as to what did or didn’t happen on 18 December, Boris Johnson has been bounced into a straight denial about a party that allegedly happened closer to home. As the crisis continues, this could be the point that comes back to bite him.