It’s crime week for the government — with Boris Johnson and his ministers set to unveil a range of measures to show how they plan to get tough on law and order. Only the ministers sent out to land that message are themselves facing questions over criminality. The claims of a ‘boozy’ Christmas party of up to 50 people, held last year when the rest of the country was banned from mixing between households, emerged in the Mirror last week but don’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
In various broadcast rounds, ministers have been pressed on whether the party occurred and if so whether it broke the rules. The standard response is that Covid guidance has been followed at all times. Downing Street has insisted that no rules had been broken though the Prime Minister has not denied that an event took place. Today the Prime Minister’s spokesperson said in a lunchtime lobby briefing that there was not a party and insisted Covid rules have been followed at all times.
This denial appears to come down to what one defines as a ‘party’ given others have since come forward with similar accounts. A Downing Street insider told the Financial Times that drinking would regularly take place in the evenings last winter — as ‘they were the only things that kept us going, bearing in mind we were the only people in Whitehall in the office working throughout’. While that quote will garner little sympathy, it does point to part of the issue: people working in government had a very different lockdown experience to the general public.
While No. 10 clearly wants to move on from the story, ministers are tying themselves in knots defending the government. On Question Time last week, Maggie Throup, the vaccines minister, was heckled as she said she didn’t know if there had been a party — but then insisted all rules were followed even if there was one. On Sunday, Justice Secretary Dominic Raab conceded that had a party occurred it would be ‘the wrong thing to do’ but, when asked about potential criminal proceedings, said the police ‘don’t normally look back and investigate things that have taken place a year ago’. This appeared to come as news to policing minister Kit Malthouse who this morning said he would ‘expect the police to have a look’ if a complaint had been made.
It’s little wonder then that Downing Street appear to now be hardening the language around the claims. As concerns rise over the Omicron variant, the story has the potential to make Johnson’s life difficult. Pressed on whether there will be new restrictions at Christmas, the government is due to formally review its plans on 18 December. Aides are hopeful that no new rules will be brought in this side of Christmas (with January looking trickier on Covid than December). But if new restrictions are needed, it will be a harder sell if the public thinks those making the rules don’t follow the same ones as the rest of the country.
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