This week’s PMQs was always going to be lively given the allegations about a Christmas party that is said to have taken place at Downing Street last year when London was in a tier 3 lockdown and large indoor gatherings were banned.
The government and numerous ministers denied that the event ever took place and even if it did, that Covid restrictions were followed by all those in attendance at the party, which was reportedly for a top aide who was leaving. Bearing in mind this is said to have taken place while people in the capital were told not to see their loved ones over the Christmas period.
Would Boris Johnson stick to the party line that a party never took place? Or would he come clean during PMQs and tell the nation that a party did indeed take place, therefore breaking the Covid rules were in place at the time? And what would the leader of the opposition Keir Starmer do? Would he demand a simple apology or go full throttle at the prime minister and do some real damage?
Clearly seeking the upper hand from the off, a noticeably unkept Johnson started the session by offering an apology to the nation about the leaked footage before promising that action would be taken if it found that rules were broken.
“May I begin by saying that I share the anger of people up and down the country at seeing Number 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures. I understand how frustrating it must be to see the people who are making the rules not following the rules because I was also furious. Mr Speaker, I apologise unreservedly for the offence it has caused and I apologise for the impression that it gives. I have been repeatedly assured that there was no party and that no rules were broken. It goes without saying that if rules were broken then disciplinary actions will be taken.”
Unsurprisingly, Starmer then used his first question to the PM to challenge him on the party allegations and ask if the public were lied to?
Starmer: “I heard what the PM said at the start of this session but I'm afraid it raises more questions than answers. Last week I asked the PM was there a party in Downing Street for dozens of people on December 18th. The government spent the week telling the British public 'there was no party,'' all guidance was followed completely'. Millions of people now think the PM was taking them for fools and that they were lied to. They're right, aren't they?” 5/10
Johnson: “I think the right honourable gentleman missed what I was saying at the start. I apologise for the impression that has been given and that staff in Downing Street take this less than seriously and I'm sickened myself and furious about that but I repeat what I said to him, that I have been repeatedly assured that the rules were not broken. I've asked the cabinet secretary to investigate what happened and that there be consequences for those involved if rules were broken.” 3/10
Verdict: In all honesty, a pretty tame opening exchange from the pair, given the magnitude of the topic.
Starmer: “An internal investigation into what happened? The situation is as clear as day. I thought last week was bad enough. Surely, the PM isn't going to start pretending the first he knew about this was last night? We've all watched the video of the prime minister's staff including his personal spokesperson. They knew there was a party. They knew it was against the rules. They knew they couldn't admit it and they thought it was funny. It was obvious what happened. Ant and Dec are ahead of the PM on this. The PM has been caught red-handed. Why doesn't he just end the investigation now by just admitting it?”
Johnson: “Because, Mr Speaker, I've been repeatedly assured that no rules were broken. I understand public anxiety about this and I understand public indignation but there is a risk of doing grave injustice to people who are frankly obeying the rules. That is why the cabinet secretary is doing an investigation and that is why there will be the requisite action necessary.”
Verdict: That’s more like it from Starmer and the Ant and Dec reference was a very nice touch. Johnson once again struggled for answers and was forced to just repeat what he said moments ago.
Starmer: “This pretence that further information has come to light... give me a break. He's still taking the public for fools. On the day of the Downing St party, Trisha Greenhalgh's mum phoned her. She was breathless and feverish. Trisha followed the rules and didn't visit her mum. Four days later on the day the PM's staff laughed about covering up the party, Trisha's mum was admitted to hospital. Trisha followed the rules and didn't visit. Trisha's mum spent Christmas Day in hospital. Trisha followed the rules and didn't visit. Two days later, Trisha's mum died. What Trisha wants to know is this: why did the PM expect that the rules allowed a Downing St party but didn't allow her to visit her dying mother. “
Johnson: “The first thing to say, in common with everyone in this house, I extend my sympathies to Trisha and her family. I know the implication that he is trying to draw that the case that we are now investigating should somehow undermine public confidence in the measures that we are taking but I may say to him that it is a great mistake to try and play politics with this issue. I think that's what he is doing and the public don't want to see confidence in these measures undermined. I think they can see the difference Mr Speaker and we have taken the steps necessary to protect the public by rolling out vaccinations. Rather than concentrating on the events of a year ago, that is what we are focusing on and I think the public will understand. “
Verdict: Another strong moment from Starmer as the house fell silent while he was recounting the story of Trisha Greenhalgh, a professor of primary care at Oxford, who tragically lost her mother last Christmas. Johnson extended his condolences but didn’t say much else in his response.
Starmer: “It's not just the events of a year ago, is it? We are facing a new variant. Even the PM must understand the damage he's done to his credibility by enforcing the rules now and in the future. Trisha made an enormous sacrifice to do the right thing by following the rules and helping defeat the virus. That's what she was asked to do. Most people were just like Trisha last Christmas. No one was dreaming of a Zoom Christmas, turkey dinners for one, gifts exchanged at service stations but the virus was out of control. 489 people died of Covid on the day of the Downing St party so the British people put the health of others and followed the rules. Isn't the PM ashamed that his staff in Downing Street couldn't do the same?”
Johnson: “I've said what I've said about the events on December 18th. They will be properly investigated and I will place a copy of the report in the library of the House of Commons. What we must not do is lose focus on what we are doing now. Of course, we will deal with the events of what may or may not have happened on 18th December last year but what we must focus on today is rolling out the vaccine across the country and what we are doing to protect the public. It is indeed right that with the omicron variant, we have a variant that is spreading quicker than anything we've seen before and that's what we must concentrate on and tell everyone to get their booster jabs.”
Verdict: Starmer attempted to bring in the omicron variant to the situation but we’re not sure it quite worked. Johnson, for his part, reverted to saying how good the government’s vaccine rollout has been – a line he regularly trots out when he doesn’t know what else to say, but one that can’t be argued with.
Starmer: “The PM apparently wants us to concentrate on what's going on today; there were no government spokesperson on the media this morning. I see the health secretary has made it to the chamber and that's the point. This virus isn't defeated. We are going to face other tests where the British people could be asked by their leaders to make further sacrifices for the greater good. Her Majesty the Queen sat alone as she marked the passing of the man she had been married to for 73 years. Self-sacrifice - that's what gives leaders the moral authority to lead. Does the PM think he has the moral authority to lead and to ask the British people to stick to the rules?”
BJ: “Not only that, the Labour party has played politics throughout this pandemic the leader of the opposition has done nothing but play politics and muddy the waters to confuse the public and cause needless confusion about the guidance. The public have not been confused and they have not been fooled. The public have gotten on with implementing the virus and got on with showing great commitment to this country by going forward to get vaccinated. At every stage, the Labour leadership have tried to muddy the waters and play politics, while the people of this country have not been fooled and in particular, they have come forward to get vaccinated faster than any other country in Europe and 20 million boosters, that is the single best thing we can do and I encourage everyone to keep going to get their booster now.”
Verdict: Johnson trying to accuse Labour of playing party politics in the pandemic felt like a needless low blow although Starmer mentioning Prince Philip’s death and the Queen’s leadership qualities didn’t seem to do much damage to the PM, despite the poignancy of the comments.
Starmer: “That's so desperate and even his own side can see it. Last week, the PM told us there was no party, now he thinks there is something to investigate. The justice secretary thinks that the police don't investigate crimes from a year ago. I ran the crown prosecution service and I can tell him that is total nonsense. At Westminster magistrates court, right now, the CPS is prosecuting over a dozen breaches of Covid restrictions last December including those who hosted parties. They are doing their job. Enforcing the laws set by Downing St. Will the PM support the police and the CPS by handing over everything the government knows about parties in Downing St to the police?”
Johnson: “Of course, we will do that and we will get on with the investigation. He continues to want to play politics with this issue. We want to get on with our job with protecting this country during the pandemic with the fastest vaccine rollout in Europe, fighting drug gangs while the party opposite wants to decriminalise class-A drugs and backing our borders bill. They have an opportunity to concentrate on that tonight. Why not back our borders bill and have life sentences for people traffickers. That's what the leader of the opposition should be doing and not playing politics.”
Verdict: Starmer closing by asking Johnson to submit the evidence of the government’s investigation to the police felt like a strong question to end on. Johnson tried to deflect by talking about the government’s drug and migration policies – which indicated that he really had run out of ways to respond to the party fiasco.
In conclusion: What was supposed to be a vintage PMQs session actually turned into something a little disappointing. Starmer did ask a lot of the right questions and had some great lines but it all felt a little meek and dare we say, conservative. Johnson was there for the taking and, although the PM definitely struggled and wasn’t his usual free-flowing self, he’ll feel that he got off lightly. Overall it’s a victory for Starmer and although there were a few flashes of brilliance you would have hoped for something much stronger in the circumstances.