LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Pressure mounted on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson after a video emerged showing key aides joking about a party in Downing Street last Christmas at a time when such gatherings were banned.
The video, obtained by ITV News and which ITV said was recorded four days after the alleged event, shows Mr Johnson's then press secretary Allegra Stratton rehearsing for a TV media briefing and saying there was "definitely no social distancing" when asked about a party.
A backlash has been growing over whether Mr Johnson's officials held a party in Downing Street last year in breach of the government's own coronavirus rules, and the episode has cast further doubt over the integrity of Mr Johnson's administration after a rocky period.
The saga has echoes of the Barnard Castle controversy of 2020, when Mr Johnson's then chief aide Dominic Cummings broke lockdown rules and triggered weeks of negative media coverage and cries of hypocrisy, fuelling the perception that it was one rule for the government and another for the governed.
"There was no Christmas party," Downing Street said in a statement late on Tuesday (Dec 7). "Covid-19 rules have been followed at all times."
This latest furore over the Christmas party, following soon after Mr Johnson's botched handling of an ethics probe into a Conservative MP and a chaotic business conference speech, threatens to further damage his standing in the polls.
Mr Johnson's popularity has steadily declined in 2021, hitting its lowest level during his premiership in November, according to a survey by market research firm Savanta ComRes.
The incident may also undermine Britain's response to the pandemic.
Though Mr Johnson's administration has resisted introducing stricter social restrictions to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant, it may wish to do so in the coming weeks.
Public compliance with rules may deteriorate amid another uproar over the government not following the rules.
Mr Johnson refused to deny that a party took place, while maintaining that the rules in place at the time were obeyed.
"I have satisfied myself that the guidelines were followed at all times," Mr Johnson told broadcasters earlier on Tuesday when asked about the alleged party.
Pandemic rules in place at the time stated: "Although there are exemptions for work purposes, you must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity."
The Daily Mirror newspaper reported last month that Mr Johnson's team held a party on Dec 18 with about 40 to 50 people "cheek by jowl", citing people familiar with the matter it did not identify.
It was not clear from the footage whether the aides were discussing an actual party, or a fictional one for the purposes of the rehearsal.
In the video obtained by ITV, Downing Street aide Ed Oldfield is heard to ask: "I've just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night. Do you recognise those reports?"
Ms Stratton, the press secretary at the time, visibly struggles to respond, before saying: "What's the answer?"
One aide is heard to say: "It wasn't a party; it was cheese and wine."
Ms Stratton says: "Is cheese and wine alright?"
Through laughter, she finally says: "This fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced."
Downing Street, Ms Stratton and Mr Oldfield did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Bloomberg News.
Mr Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said the government's actions were shameful at a time when the rules separated people from their families.
"The Prime Minister now needs to come clean and apologise," he said. "It cannot be one rule for the Conservatives and another for everyone else."
Mr Johnson is also already facing criticism from his own backbenchers about the affair. Conservative MP Roger Gale said the incident "has all the hallmarks of another 'Barnard Castle' moment".
Mr Gale wrote on Twitter: "No. 10 clearly has some serious questions to answer. Fast."
Separately, the Daily Mirror reported late on Tuesday that former education secretary Gavin Williamson also held an illegal Christmas party last year in his ministry, another blow for Mr Johnson's administration.
The new footage about the Downing Street Christmas party coincided with a separate row about whether Mr Johnson and his team had told the truth over a controversy during the Afghanistan evacuation.
Evidence from a Foreign Office whistle-blower published on Tuesday said Mr Johnson personally intervened to save staff and animals at a rescue charity, a decision that came at the expense of helping Afghans who had assisted British forces.
Mr Johnson's office strongly denied the claim, yet LBC News later obtained a letter from his parliamentary aide to the head of the charity, which showed the aide giving the authorisation for the evacuation, heavily suggesting Mr Johnson's involvement.