openDemocracyUK: Opinion

I missed my grandma’s last Christmas as Downing Street partied

It’s one rule for the British government and another for everybody else: a lockdown for us, a party for them

Indra Warnes
8 December 2021, 10.45am
Government staff discuss their Christmas party, laughing at the public’s expense
YouTube/ITV News. All rights reserved

My family, like so many others across the UK, celebrated last Christmas virtually. Where there would usually be a festive photo of us all around a table strewn with empty plates and half-full glasses and the remnants of crackers, paper hats at jaunty angles on our heads, there is only a screenshot: three little windows into three little Christmases on three different sofas at opposite ends of the country.

This is especially painful for me to think about because it was, though none of us could have known it at the time, my grandma’s last Christmas on this earth – and she spent it largely on her own. A Christmas dinner for one delivered by a local restaurant for her to eat in front of the telly.

It is this image, of my grandma alone in her flat, as she was for almost the entire 18 months preceding her death in July, that brought me to tears last night when I watched the video, filmed on 22 December 2020, of Boris Johnson’s then press secretary, Allegra Stratton, rehearsing for one of the government’s proposed daily TV briefings. In the footage, obtained by ITV News, Stratton stands behind a podium on stage and fields questions from Ed Oldfield, the prime minister’s adviser, who takes on the role of a journalist in the audience.

“I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night. Do you recognise those reports?” Oldfield asks.

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“I went home,” replies Stratton, bursting into laughter. She composes herself, replying “hold on” before making pained “umm, errr, ahhhh” noises in an apparent struggle to answer the question. Oldfield interrupts her silence: “Would the prime minister condone having a Christmas party?”

Stratton laughs again, asking him, “What’s the answer?” Oldfield, too, starts laughing: “I don’t know,” he admits.

The whole thing is horribly smug. And it appears to be pretty damning evidence, for those who still needed it, of the Daily Mirror’s report last week that “40 to 50 people” attended a Christmas party at Number 10 on 18 December 2020. At the time, London was in ‘tier 3’, meaning residents could not mix with anybody outside of their household or support bubble.

In the weeks since the party was first reported, we have had to endure the government’s persistent but somewhat flimsy denials. Science minister George Freeman claiming he “wasn’t there” and has “no idea” what happened but that he does know “guidance was followed”; Tory party chairman Oliver Dowden saying “I don’t know the details of what happened”; justice secretary Dominic Raab professing: “The PM's very clear no rules were broken. I wasn't there, by the way.”

Johnson himself even failed to explicitly deny a party had taken place, telling MPs only that “all guidance was followed completely”.

All the while more details have been emerging, with news of a WhatsApp group and a pre-planned ‘Secret Santa’ putting paid to any claims the gathering had been spontaneous.

And, now, the video. Government staff laughing about how best to lie about their festivities. “It was cheese and wine!” one suggests, to guffaws from the room. “Is cheese and wine all right?” Stratton replies, herself laughing, though she must have known it was not. She composes herself, seemingly remembering where she is: “This is recorded,” she warns her colleagues. “This fictional party was a business meeting – and it was not socially distanced.” Then she starts giggling again.

Because it was all just a laugh to this government. There is, as we have known since at least the scandal of Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle, one rule for them and one rule for everybody else. A lockdown for us, a party for them. It is not just Christmas: days before the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur, last year, England, Wales and Scotland introduced new restrictions on gatherings. Muslims in Leicester spent two Eids in lockdown in 2020, thanks to regional restrictions imposed last summer. In the same year, Diwali – the Hindu festival of lights – fell in the middle of November’s lockdown restrictions. We all made sacrifices. The government didn’t bother.

This Tory government holds us all in contempt. Its members do as they please and lie if they get caught

As Downing Street staff partied on 18 December, 50 miles south, I was in the midst of a self-imposed quarantine. Nine months previously, in March 2020, I had failed to attend my grandma’s 88th birthday – too afraid of unwittingly catching and transmitting to her the virus sweeping the country to board the train. But having bought my first car in November, it seemed that at Christmas I would finally be able to make the 200-mile journey safely. I was not taking any chances: when London reentered tier 2 on 2 December, my boyfriend and I stayed home, ordering food deliveries and debating whether it would be too risky to stop in a service station on our journey.

These hypotheticals were pointless, of course – days before we were meant to leave (and two days after Downing Street’s party) Johnson put London and much of the south-east into lockdown, cancelling Christmas. My mum and I cried down the phone that evening. My boyfriend and I didn’t go to see my grandma or any of our other family members.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Though the chance to spend this final Christmas with my grandma – a woman who loved festivities and a good meal out, who would unfailingly remind her family that “nobody must stint themselves” as the menus arrived at our table – was robbed of me, I did get to see her one last time in the weeks before she passed away. I will forever be thankful for that reunion in her hospital room. Hundreds of thousands across the country did not get the same chance to say goodbye to their loved ones, and my heart breaks for them.

This Tory government holds us all in utter contempt. Its members do as they please and lie through their teeth if they get caught. They laugh at our expense. The Christmas party is just the latest reminder of that, but it ought to be the last. We cannot continue to allow them to get away with it.

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