Stony-faced and stonewalling questions: Behind the scenes on a calamitous day for Boris Johnson

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·Political Correspondent - Yahoo News UK
·11-min read
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Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures whilst speaking at a press conference in London's Downing Street after ministers met to consider imposing new restrictions in response to rising cases and the spread of the Omicron variant. Picture date: Wednesday December 8, 2021.
Boris Johnson at the end of a disastrous 24 hours. (PA)

It started with ministers dodging questions in the morning, and ended with an evening press conference in which embattled Boris Johnson plunged the UK into tighter COVID restrictions. Yahoo News UK's political correspondent, Nadine Batchelor-Hunt, reports on a remarkable day behind scenes at Westminster that could prove an unwelcome turning point for the prime minister

Good morning?

It's about 7am when BBC Breakfast announces to its viewers that the government minister due to come on to the programme, health secretary, Sajid Javid — has unexpectedly pulled out. 

It soon transpires that no minister is prepared to appear on any of the normal TV and radio broadcast rounds

The reason? The publication of a bombshell video by ITV News the night before that showed Downing Street staff laughing about a Christmas Party seemingly held in the middle of lockdown.

Multiple ministers have spent days insisting that no COVID rules were broken and it appears attempts to shut the story down have run out of steam. 

11.30am Westminster on tenterhooks

In parliament, it's not just MPs on tenterhooks as to how the day will evolve. Staff in the many corridors of Westminster also have a sense of the gravity of the situation, with some more cynical than others.

allegra
Allegra Stratton, the who was prime minister's spokesperson, appeared to joke about a Christmas party held several days earlier obtained in footage from December 2020 that was leaked to ITV. (ITV)

"You know what it's like – today it's this, tomorrow everyone will move on," one says.

"This PMQs will be an interesting one, won't it?" says another, grinning.

Away from the Christmas party scandal, multiple journalists are also being briefed that a Downing Street COVID press conference is "imminent", with some claiming the move is a "dead cat" — a way of diverting attention from the party. 

11.45am

It's around 15 minutes until Boris Johnson has to face the music.

IDS
Sir Iain Duncan Smith was among around 20 Conservative MPs that did not wear a mask at prime minister's questions. (parliamentlive.tv)

The press gallery balcony, which overlooks the chamber, is quietly filling up as journalists slip in; it's significantly busier than it would be for an average PMQs. 

Below, at least 20 Conservative MPs are not wearing masks, despite the government's own guidance encouraging mask wearing in light of the new Omicron variant.

Maskless MPs include former work and pensions secretary, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, and Conservative MP Sir Christopher Chope.

High noon

The prime minister has still not arrived - usually he emerges ahead of noon to get settled. 

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is ready and waiting, flanked by deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves.

keir starmer
This prime minister's questions provided Sir Keir Starmer with a special opportunity to connect with the public. (parliamentlive.tv)

The Conservative benches are fuller now, but there are still a few empty seats - in contrast, the opposition benches are packed, with MPs animated and riled up about what's to come. 

Former prime minister Theresa May sits quietly in her usual place - pensive, and hard to read. 

12.01pm

The prime minister enters the chamber, later than normal, and is greeted by a round of jeers from the opposition benches. 

MPs bounce in their seats with anticipation as Johnson saunters past them looking apprehensive but resolved. 

Less pugnacious than usual, he stands up and issues a fulsome apology for the hurt caused by footage of his staff joking about having a Christmas party during lockdown – insisting he is "furious". 

Watch: Johnson apologises for offence caused by aides joking about Christmas party

Labour MPs jeer, shout, and sneer with frustration – reaching a fever pitch when Johnson insisted there was "no party".

In contrast, Conservative MPs sit stony-faced, almost emotionless – many with folded arms and looking down, most ignoring the gesticulating and discontent from the opposition benches.

Many are fed-up with the growing number of crises - Owen Paterson, the Afghanistan evacuation, MPs' second jobs, the flat refurbishment, the 'cash for honours' scandal, COVID contracts - under his premiership.  

12:06

Speaker Lindsay Hoyle is forced to pause proceedings as the shouts become too loud, but when the prime minister resumes speaking there are furious shouts of "shame!" 

labour pmqs
Labour MPs shouted and gesticulated as the prime minister addressed the House. (parliamentlive.tv)

At one point, Hoyle warns Labour frontbencher Labour MP Wes Streeting, new shadow health secretary, to calm down. 

Labour MPs cry out as Johnson accuses Labour leader Starmer of "playing politics" for telling a story about a member of the public whose mother died in hospital alone over Christmas due to lockdown. 

Johnson is met with boos as he finishes his response to Starmer, and soon is up against the SNP's leader in the Commons Ian Blackford - who calls on him to resign. 

starmer
The Labour leader accused the prime minister of being "socially distanced" from the truth. (parliamentlive.tv)

Hoyle is forced to stop proceedings again, but this time to reprimand Conservative frontbenchers for being too loud - as SNP MPs wag their fingers accusing Johnson of hypocrisy for stressing the importance of clear messaging. 

An MP asks the PM if there was a party on 13 November and, appropriately for pantomime season, opposition MPs say collectively say “oooooh!” together - before laughing and jeering when Johnson denies it.  

Watch: Boris Johnson apologises over footage of No 10 staff joking about Christmas party

Half an hour into the explosive session, several Labour MPs visibly facepalm as Johnson responds to a question on whether or not trust in politics matters.

Labour MP Rosena Allin-Khan, who worked as an intensive care doctor during the worst of the pandemic, tells a story of what she saw there. 

"I wept behind my mask as three children, talking to their dying mother on an iPad, begged her to wake up," she says, adding: "while parties were held at Number 10." 

boris johnson
The prime minister looked at his lap and twiddled a pen while an MP told how she cried watching children begging their dead mother to wake up over FaceTime in the worst of the pandemic. (parliamentlive.tv)

The prime minister looks down as Allin-Khan speaks, twiddling a pen and looking into his lap. Tory MPs behind them sit extremely still, while opposition MPs shake their heads. 

As the session of Prime Minister's Questions ends, the PM makes a hasty exit.

In the lobby

Now it's time for the daily lobby briefing, which allows journalists to ask follow-up questions of the PM's spokespeople. 

It's later than normal on a Wednesday to follow PMQs, and it is packed after a week of Number 10 stonewalling lobby journalists over the party. 

Normally, the briefings start with the prime minister’s diary - where he's going, what he's going to do. But there's only one thing on the agenda today.

The Christmas tree outside 10 Downing Street, Westminster, London.
The government have repeatedly dodged questions about reports of a Christmas party on the 18th December 2020 which would have broken lockdown. (PA Images)

Question after question is asked: "Was there a party?" "Who lied about it?" "Has anyone been fired?" "How secure is Downing Street if footage is being leaked?"

There are some snorts of laughter in exasperation at points when simple questions - like who was at the party - are sidestepped, shut down, or simply just not answered. 

Two attempts are needed before journalists get answers on whether or not the prime minister is told when there are parties in his house.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street, London, to attend Prime Minister's Questions at the Houses of Parliament. Picture date: Wednesday December 8, 2021.
The prime minister has repeatedly said there was not a party in Number 10, where he lives. (PA Images)

When asked if the prime minister attended the party, which Johnson said didn’t happen, journalists were told that he was working all evening on the night of 18 December 2020.

“Did he pop in?” one journalist asks. 

The backlash grows

While much of the public criticism by Tories of the PM has been restricted to a handful of backbench MPs, at 1.29pm former Scottish Conservatives leader, Ruth Davidson, takes to Twitter to voice her anger about the prime minister's management of the debacle. 

"None of this is remotely defensible. Not having busy, boozy not-parties while others were sticking to the rules, unable to visit ill or dying loved ones," she writes. "Nor flat-out denying things that are easily provable. Not taking the public for fools. 

"And today's "we'll investigate what we've spent a week saying didn't happen and discipline staff for rules we continue to say weren't broken" was pathetic. 

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross at the count for the Scottish Parliamentary Elections at the Inverness Leisure Hall in Inverness. Picture date: Saturday May 8, 2021.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said the prime minister should resign if the party happened. (PA Images)

"As a Tory, I was brought up to believe in playing with a straight bat. Believe me, colleagues are furious at this, too."

The current leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglas Ross, also said that – if the party happened – the prime minister should resign. 

At 2.52pm it's clear the scandal has cut through to the public, with a snap SavantaComRes poll revealing 54% of people think the PM should resign.

It's starting to end in tears

Stratton, Boris Johnson's adviser caught in the notorious video, resigns as the PM's COP26 climate change spokesperson at 3.30pm.

"I now fear that my comments in the leaked video… have become a distraction in that fight," she says outside her home, eyes bright red from crying. 

Allegra Stratton speaking outside her home in north London where she announced that she has resigned as an adviser to Boris Johnson and offered her
A tearful Allegra Stratton claimed she never intended 'to make light of the rules' following leaked footage appearing to show her joking about a Christmas party. (PA Images)

"[My remarks] seemed to make light of the rules, rules that people were doing everything to obey... that was never my intention. 

"I will regret those remarks for the rest of my days, and offer my profound apologies to all of you at home for them."

Meanwhile, the Downing Street press conference has been confirmed for 6pm. Outside Downing Street’s gates, members of the public shout “there’s a party going on in there, you know!” as journalists enter.

18:06: Restrictions return

There's a sombre and quiet atmosphere inside the press conference room as the technicians align the cameras ahead of the prime minister's entrance. 

Johnson enters, and announces the country is moving to "Plan B" - meaning measures like guidance on working from home and vaccine passports to access some indoor venues. 

Christmas parties are, however, allowed — raising the prospect that people are not allowed to go to the office to meet with colleagues, but they are allowed to go to the pub to do so.

(left to right) Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (Covid-19). Picture date: Saturday November 27, 2021.
Johnson was flanked by chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance. (PA)

Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance flank a stony faced prime minister as they show concerning graphs on the rapid spreading of the new Omicron COVID variant. 

If Johnson thought this would provide some reprieve from the Downing Street party grilling, he was wrong. 

Each journalist questions the prime minister over the party, including whether it will make it even harder for the public to follow the new rules if they don't believe staff in Johnson's own office are doing so. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at a press conference in London's Downing Street after ministers met to consider imposing new restrictions in response to rising cases and the spread of the Omicron variant. Picture date: Wednesday December 8, 2021.
The prime minister was unable to dodge questions on the party at his COVID-19 press briefing where he announced new social distancing measures. (PA Images)

As the briefing ends, Johnson again makes a quick departure, scuttling behind the blue screens before Vallance and Whitty barely have time to move.

Over in the House of Commons, it is just as uncomfortable for the health secretary Sajid Javid, who is updating the house on the new measures. 

Tory MP after Tory MP lines up to criticise the government over the handling of the Christmas party scandal and the strictness of the measures. 

The Catch-up sign up
The Catch-up sign up

There is even the suggestion that the prime minister brought forward the new COVID rules to distract from the leaked footage. Their anger is likely to make it difficult for Johnson in the coming days and weeks.

Conservative MP Roger Gale delivers repeats his earlier damning indictment of the prime minister's denials on Sky News.

Asked if he believes there was a party, he says: "I've been told that food was delivered, that drink was delivered, that there was entertainment. So that sounds like a party to me. Doesn't it to you?"

The day ends on a rare bright note for Johnson as the Met Police announces it will not investigate allegations of a party at Downing Street due to an “absence of evidence". 

But it is by no means the end of Johnson's troubles.

Watch: Allegra Stratton resigns as Government spokeswoman as probe launched into No 10 party

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