A video obtained by ITV shows senior No 10 staff joking about holding a Christmas party – days after one was held there during lockdown.
The PM’s then press secretary Allegra Stratton is asked by colleagues about reports of a party, as they rehearse a news conference in December last year.
In jokey exchanges, she says: “This fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.”
Downing Street continues to insist no party took place.
But a source previously confirmed to the BBC that a party did take place there on 18 December, with “several dozen” people in attendance.
It is expected Boris Johnson will face tough questions about the party – and the video – from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions later.
The mock news conference took place in Downing Street on Tuesday, 22 December 2020, without members of the media present.
At the time, the government’s coronavirus guidance specifically stated that people should not have Christmas parties – and gatherings in London of two or more people indoors were banned unless they were “reasonably necessary” for work.
A day after Ms Stratton’s exchange, Mr Johnson announced that strict lockdown rules would be in place over Christmas for parts of England, meaning many could not see relatives during the festive period.
In the clip, obtained by ITV, Ms Stratton responds in a playful tone to questions from colleagues pretending to be journalists.
Special adviser to the prime minister Ed Oldfield asks her about reports of a party in Downing Street “on Friday night”.
In reply, Ms Stratton says: “I went home” and then pauses.
After Mr Oldfield follows up to question if the prime minister would “condone” a Christmas party, Ms Stratton asks: “What’s the answer?”
When another aide jokes that “it wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine” she laughs and asks “is cheese and wine all right?”, adding: “This fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.”
In response to the clip, No 10 said: “There was no Christmas party. Covid rules have been followed at all times.”
Health Secretary Sajid Javid was expected to appear on the BBC’s Breakfast and Today programmes but cancelled. No other minister was offered as a replacement.
Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer said people across the country had “followed the rules even when that meant being separated from their families”, while many had been “unable to say goodbye to their loved ones”.
David Lammy, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, stopped short of calling for the prime minister’s resignation, but said Boris Johnson must come clean and apologise to the British people.
He described the video as a “kick in the face” to doctors and nurses who worked through the pandemic and said it damaged the public health message.
People think that if the prime minister and his staff can’t be bothered, why should I, he told BBC’s Breakfast.
The SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, said the prime minister “must remove himself from office immediately” if it was true there was a Downing Street Christmas party that was not socially distanced last year.
Dr Saleyha Ahsan, of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Group, said her jaw had hit the floor when she watched the video and brought back flashbacks of last December when her father fell ill with Covid, and later died.
This latest revelation was “like a bullet to the chest”, she said, and showed the government’s “lack of regard for the rest of us”.
The Metropolitan Police said it was reviewing the footage, which it said related to “alleged breaches” of coronavirus regulations.
It added: “It is our policy not to routinely investigate retrospective breaches of the Covid-19 regulations, however the footage will form part of our considerations.”
A current serving minister has told me it is appalling and a senior backbencher said it could be catastrophic for the government.
Remember, for the last few weeks Downing Street has been refusing to give more details of exactly what happened 12 months ago.
Remember, too, the context of the time.
When this event took place on 18 December, Covid was again taking a grip; the public were again being instructed by the prime minister that they were going to have to take more precautions.
England was going to be in lockdown again and people were no longer going to be able to see their relatives.
This video shows what was going on behind closed doors at No 10 – not just talking about the gathering that did take place, but seeming to laugh at exactly what had unfolded and considering how they might explain it if the news ever got out.
On the No 10 position, a government source told the BBC: “This line won’t hold. As bad as Cummings’ road trip for sure.”
A senior Conservative said the Owen Paterson affair showed the prime minister “didn’t think the rules applied to his friends”.
“This video demonstrates that’s widely shared in No 10 by senior political advisers. People prevented by the gov[ernment] from seeing loved ones at end of their life will conclude they were taken for fools.”
And senior Conservative Charles Walker, vice chair of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers, said it would have an impact on any future restrictions Downing Street wanted to introduce.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The events of last Christmas on 18 December are clearly very, very unfortunate, but I am much more interested in this Christmas.
“I think that this video makes it very, very difficult now for the government to have anything but voluntary restrictions on people’s mixing and mingling.
“People, if required in law not to meet friends and relatives, will say, ‘look, it didn’t happen last year at No 10 Downing Street [so] it is not going to happen this year at No 10 Acacia Avenue’.”
The government has been under pressure about the party since it was first reported by the Daily Mirror last week.
The Mirror said last year’s official Downing Street Christmas party had been cancelled due to restrictions, but staff held an unofficial gathering.
A source who attended later told the BBC that party games were played, food and drink were served, the party went on past midnight and that “several dozen” people attended.
Asked about the party earlier on Tuesday, Boris Johnson said he was “satisfied” no Covid rules had been broken.
But the restrictions operating at the time banned such get-togethers.
No 10 has refused to explain how the partygoers complied, despite days of questioning by reporters.
Following the leak of the clip, one Conservative MP told the BBC: “This story is incredibly frustrating as we don’t have official details either. I’m getting messages from my constituents, accusing me of being at the party… It’s very difficult to respond in any detail because I don’t have any and wasn’t there.”
Another said: “We are all battening down the hatches… it’s indefensible”.
And according to another MP, the chief whip had “gone ballistic” with No 10.
Meanwhile, the Mirror has reported that in December 2020, then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson held a party for staff.
A spokeswoman for the education department said a “gathering” was held for those who were already in the office and couldn’t work from home.
“Drinks and snacks were brought by those attending and no outside guests or supporting staff were invited or present. While this was work-related, looking back we accept it would have been better not to have gathered in this way at that particular time.”
What were the rules on office parties in December 2020?
Any party at Downing Street would have breached the government’s guidelines at the time.
Its guidance for the Christmas period specifically said: “Although there are exemptions for work purposes, you must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted by the rules in your tier.”
The other question is whether it would have been illegal.
London at the time was in Tier 3 and the law banned gatherings of two or more people indoors unless it was “reasonably necessary” for work.
There was also a specific prohibition on organising an indoor gathering of more than 30 people.
But there may have theoretically been a loophole for government buildings like 10 Downing Street because of the 1984 legislation used to bring in the tier system, according to Adam Wagner – a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and an expert on Covid regulations.
Another barrister, Charles Holland from Trinity Chambers, tweeted that there would have needed to be an agreement with Westminster City Council for the regulations to apply in Downing Street.