On the morning of 30 November 2021, I was sitting in the Downing Street briefing room. The UK Health Security Agency chief Jenny Harries had just said on the radio that people should be “careful, not socialising when we don’t particularly need to” in the weeks ahead. But the PM’s official spokesman didn’t appear to agree, telling us that Harries “gives advice to the government, she is not the government”. I had been working on the No 10 party story for about six weeks, but knew that now was the moment to publish. Covid was making headlines again, and Christmas was approaching. The public interest argument felt overwhelming.
We ran our splash with the headline “Boris party broke Covid rules”. No 10 didn’t deny the claims but insisted no rules were broken. There’s always a moment when you publish a story you think has the potential to have impact when you feel slightly sick. Some in Westminster were sceptical. “It’s a bubble story,” one insider told me. “It was a year ago. Not sure it goes anywhere,” another added. At Prime Minister’s Questions, I sat in the press gallery flanked by two of my team for moral support. The Labour leader Keir Starmer accused the PM of “taking the British public for fools”. Downing Street aides tied themselves in knots afterwards. The broadcasters went big with the story, but the papers were more cautious.
Quizzes, buffets and hypocrisy
After a week of obfuscation from the government, the story exploded when ITV’s Paul Brand got hold of footage of Boris Johnson’s team joking about the No 10 staff Christmas party. It led to the PM’s senior aide Allegra Stratton quitting – rightly, although it’s always a bit depressing when the woman in the room is the only one who takes the hit. The PM was forced to announce an inquiry by the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, into the parties. We had revealed two gatherings in Downing Street and one at the Department for Education. Other events came to light, including pictures of the PM at a “virtual” festive quiz at No 10 (even though most participants were in the building) and a bash held at Conservative Campaign Headquarters with a very dubious-looking buffet. All while the rest of the country was following lockdown rules. The PM’s personal ratings started to plummet – the public hates double standards.
Starting them young
On 17 December it was my children’s last day at school before Christmas and I was supposed to be off work. But just after 4am I was glued to my phone watching the results of the North Shropshire by-election. In a disastrous turn of events for the Tories, the Lib Dems took the previously true-blue seat. My phone started pinging shortly after, with Tory contacts lamenting how Johnson had lost his way. More revelations followed – that the PM attended a gathering in the Downing Street garden in May 2020 and that there was a party in Case’s own office, rendering his role overseeing the inquiry untenable. The senior civil servant Sue Gray has since taken over and expanded the investigation, leaving some in No 10 quaking in their boots. I fielded calls from contacts while getting the kids ready for swimming lessons. With our childminder off sick with Covid and my husband working, my ten-year-old even had to answer a call from the Cabinet Office.
Although colleagues joke I’m never going to get invited to another party again, I do love a good knees-up. But like many families, we were concerned about Omicron ruining our Christmas so cancelled our social lives, worked from home and tested for Covid daily. Luckily, the caution paid off and we were able to pack up the car and head north for a week. As for so many people, 2021 had been a tough year for us, so it was a joy to watch the kids sing slightly out of tune carols through the open window of their grandma’s care home. At one point they went 18 months without being able to see her.
The scoops to come
I’m now back in London, after a restorative week in Scotland, full of long and muddy dog walks and catching up with loved ones over (too much) wine. It’s always a bit of a gear change getting back into work, especially amid high expectations about what comes next. But I think back to this time last year when somebody mentioned to me that somebody else had told them of a Christmas party at No 10. Despite my best endeavours, I wasn’t able to get the story over the line back then. But I filed away the nugget in case it proved useful. I have several other nuggets in my head right now. Let’s see what comes of them in 2022.
Pippa Crerar is political editor of the Daily Mirror
[see also: Boris Johnson is finally out of luck]
This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance