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The British prime minister is under fire over a Christmas party held at Downing Street during lockdown last year. A video showing staff members joking about how to explain the party has sparked anger.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered an investigation on Wednesday after a video appeared to confirm reports that his government broke lockdown rules in December 2020 with a Christmas party at Downing Street.
The jokes made by senior staff members sparked swift condemnation from parties across the political spectrum, leading to one staffer's resignation — with some calling for Johnson himself to step down over the scandal.
The public outcry could also hamper the British government's credibility as it potentially looks to impose new COVID-curbing restrictions — dubbed Plan B — in the run-up to the Christmas holidays.
Facing lawmakers in Parliament on Wednesday, Johnson apologized "unreservedly" for the video.
"I apologize unreservedly for the offense that it has caused up and down the country, and I apologize for the impression that it gives," he told lawmakers in Parliament.
"I was also furious to see that clip," Johnson added. He said he has now tasked the UK's top civil servant to probe the case — and that those found at fault would be disciplined.
The leaked video, which was broadcast by ITV, shows senior government staff joking about how to handle being asked about the Christmas party.
The backlash has already prompted one staff member to resign. Allegra Stratton, a former press secretary who made many of the jokes in the video, said she would resign as an adviser to Johnson.
"To all of you who lost loved ones, endured intolerable loneliness and struggled with your business — I am sorry and this afternoon I have offered my resignation to Prime Minister," she told reporters, according to British media.
Earlier, Johnson's office had maintained that the party did not take place and that no rules were broken.
"There was no Christmas party. COVID rules have been followed at all times," a spokesperson for the prime minister said in response to the video.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer slammed the video as an insult to members of the public who followed the lockdown rules.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Starmer accused the prime minister of "taking the public for fools."
Starmer, formerly Britain's leading state prosecutor, also pressed Johnson to hand over any relevant evidence to the police.
"Of course we will do that," Johnson responded.
Ian Blackford, a member of the Scottish National Party (SNP) said the government should go further than an apology — calling on Johnson to resign.
Johnson also faced criticism among the British press, with the Daily Mail calling the video "A sick joke" in its banner headline. "No. 10 Party Clowns," read the headline on Metro.
The leaked footage, aired by British broadcaster ITV on Tuesday night, shows Johnson's staff rehearsing for a daily press briefing at the prime minister's residence at Downing Street in December 2020.
The press secretary at the time, Allegra Stratton, and other members of Johnson's office are seen joking about holding a Christmas party in breach of the government's own lockdown rules.
"I've just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night — do you recognize those reports?" a government adviser asks.
Stratton laughs and says: "I went home."
She then appears to struggle to respond and asks her colleagues: "What's the answer?"
Another voice jokingly suggests that she say, "It wasn't a party; it was cheese and wine."
"Is cheese and wine all right? It was a business meeting," Stratton replies with a laugh.
According to British media, the party took place on December 18, 2020, at Downing Street — at a time when office holiday parties were strictly banned, and millions of people were barred from meeting for Christmas celebrations or even from saying goodbye to dying loved ones.
The leaked video that was aired by ITV was recorded on December 22, 2020, just days after the party is believed to have taken place.
rs/sms (Reuters, AP, AFP)