Her smirk a year ago embodied Downing Street’s alleged attitude toward lockdown rules, but there was nothing fake about Allegra Stratton’s tears on Wednesday as her government career came to an end.
“I will regret those remarks for the rest of my days,” she said, insisting she had not intended to “make light” of the rules in a leaked video of her joking about the infamous No 10 Christmas party.
It was at a fake press conference last December that she laughed knowingly with colleagues about the “fictional party” with “cheese and wine”, and it was at an impromptu press conference outside her home, this time meant for public consumption, that she gave her “profound apologies” to the public.
Unlike Dominic Cummings and Matt Hancock before her, Ms Stratton had quit less than 24 hours after being dragged into the scandal, but her resignation is unlikely to stop the torrent of anger over “partygate” from large sections of the Tory Party.
Much of the talk in Westminster on Wednesday was of how many other heads will roll, up to and including the Prime Minister himself after Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Tories, became the latest to say he should resign if he had prior knowledge of the knees-up on December 18.
Mr Johnson left little doubt that he had been misled by his own staff and promised “disciplinary action for all those involved” if rules had been broken.
Having previously insisted that there had not been a party and that no rules had been broken, Mr Johnson changed tack on Wednesday to say that he had been “repeatedly assured” that was the case, placing the blame on others for any untruths.
He told the House of Commons he was “furious” when he saw the clip of Stratton’s comments, delivered from the podium in the Downing Street press conference room, adding: “I apologise unreservedly for the offence that it has caused up and down the country.”
He said: “I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing No 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures, and I can understand how infuriating it must be to think that people who have been setting the rules have not been following the rules.”
PM’s own advisers almost certainly attended party
The problem for the Prime Minister, who did not attend the gathering on December 18, is that some of those who have been advising him in recent days almost certainly attended the party themselves.
He announced on Wednesday that Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, who was not at the party, would investigate whether any rules were broken, but Mr Case poses less of a threat than Scotland Yard, who are reviewing the footage of Ms Stratton before deciding whether an investigation is merited.
Any hope that the scandal would simply blow over disappeared when Mr Johnson found himself having to confirm on Wednesday that “of course” he would hand over to the Metropolitan Police everything the Government knows about parties in Downing Street.
The Met later announced it was not taking the matter further “at this time”, though with the caveat that if the Cabinet Office found fresh evidence as part of its own investigation the matter would be given “further consideration” by police.
According to some reports, those parties have included gatherings in the Prime Minister’s flat, though again, No 10 insists no rules were broken.
There is little dispute that Downing Street staff swapped gifts and drank together into the night on Dec 18 last year, on a day when they were already bracing themselves for a barrage of criticism heading their way about a more immediate controversy.
Cabinet Office inquiry to be told party was ‘impromptu affair’
According to government sources with knowledge of the events of that evening, the Cabinet Office inquiry launched by Mr Johnson on Wednesday will be told that the party was an impromptu affair that took place as staff worked into the early hours preparing for the following day’s major announcement.
Mr Johnson was about to tell the country the emergence of the Kent strain meant that plans for a five-day easing of lockdown rules over Christmas would now be a one-day easing of rules, meaning huge amounts of preparation by press officers, political advisers and civil servants.
Knowing they would be at their desks past midnight, staff went out to get cheese and wine from the local Tesco above Westminster Underground station. As was often the case on a Friday or when someone had a leaving do, staff congregated around a large circular table in a vestibule next to the press office, situated in No 11 Downing St.
Meanwhile, according to some sources, gifts were exchanged under a Secret Santa present swap that had been arranged weeks earlier.
“As far as there was any ‘party’, that was the extent of it,” one source claimed. But others claim the party was far more organised, with invitations being emailed out by both civil servants and political staff. There have even been reports of games being played, a quiz and an end-of-year “awards” ceremony.
The Prime Minister, who had spent much of the day in Bolton, did not attend the gathering, according to multiple sources, though dozens of people did, including, it appears, Ed Oldfield, his media adviser on broadcast, who asked the question about the party at the press conference rehearsal four days later.
Allegra Stratton, then the Prime Minister’s press secretary and until Wednesday the Cop26 spokesman, claimed in a leaked recording of the mock press conference that she had gone home, though her in-joke to colleagues that “it was not socially distanced” hints at how raucous the night became.
One source claimed Downing Street was split at the time into two “silos”, with Cabinet Office staff, chastened by Dominic Cummings’s mauling and eventual departure over the Barnard Castle affair, working largely from home and careful about social distancing while in the office, while a second group, based more closely around the Prime Minister, largely ignored the rules.
Government sources have suggested it was Mr Johnson’s own laissez-faire attitude to the rules that fostered such a culture.
One insider confirmed that Mr Johnson spoke at a leaving do for his former deputy chief of staff on November 27, in front of a group of approximately 30 press officers and aides.
The source, who attended the event, said it turned into a drinking session even though indoor meetings were banned at the time. Lord Lister, the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff, was said to have been present, as were senior No 10 aides and media advisers. Lord Lister declined to comment when approached by The Telegraph.
Approached for comment regarding the event on November 27, a Downing Street spokesman said: “Some No 10 staff briefly said goodbye and thanked a colleague on the day she left. There was not a party. Covid rules were followed at all times.”
Mr Cummings has suggested that the Cabinet Office investigation should also look into parties he claimed had taken place in the Prime Minister’s flat in Downing Street, including one he says happened on the day he resigned – Nov 13, 2020 – as well as “the other flat parties and the flat’s ‘bubble’ policy”.
A spokesman for Carrie Johnson said: “This is total nonsense. Mrs Johnson has followed coronavirus rules at all times and it is categorically untrue to suggest otherwise.”
However, Downing Street insiders working in the building that evening have told The Telegraph that an event did take place in the flat that night, which was attended by Mrs Johnson and several of her closest allies.
This newspaper has been given the names of six current and former senior government officials who were alleged to be present, as well as two other people known to be close to Ms Symonds. Several have fiercely denied the claims.
One source said that music could be heard “blaring” from the apartment from 7pm onwards, after Mr Cummings had left the building.
News of the Christmas parties did not become public until December 1 this year, when the Daily Mirror newspaper was leaked details of them, in what appeared to be a move to embarrass the Government into refraining from imposing restrictions this Christmas.
Mr Johnson’s response to the reports was to deny a party had taken place and to insist that the rules had been followed at all times. The leaked video changed all that.
A story that had until then been confined to the inside pages of most newspapers suddenly became the main news on TV bulletins, and became the subject of jokes by Ant and Dec on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, confirming that, like Dominic Cummings’s trip to Barnard Castle, the party had become part of the national conversation.
Public confidence in Prime Minister waning
A snap Savanta ComRes poll found that 54 per cent of those polled believed the Prime Minister should resign, while Google searches for cancelling Conservative Party membership surged 19-fold during the day and the bookmaker Coral slashed the odds on Mr Johnson being replaced as PM in 2022 from 6-1 to 7-4.
Worse still, Scottish Tory leader Mr Ross did Labour’s job for them by saying: “If the Prime Minister knew about this party last December, knew about this party last week, and was still denying it, then that is the most serious allegation.
“There is absolutely no way you can mislead parliament and think you could get off with that.
“No one should continue in their post if they mislead Parliament in that way.”
How Allegra Stratton must now be wishing she had heeded her own warning when she told colleagues at the mock press conference (a rehearsal for White House-style televised briefings which, in the end, never happened) that: “This is being recorded.”
Instead, a year on, and with her career in tatters, she was left to reflect: “I understand the anger and frustration that people feel. To all of you who lost loved ones, who endured intolerable loneliness and who struggled with your businesses, I am truly sorry.”