Because of Tier 3 lockdown measures, seemingly ignored by No 10, families were unable to hold loved ones’ hands as they passed away. Heart breaking accounts have been shared of family members dying alone while No. 10 partied. The outcry against Allegra Stratton was totally understandable.
However, I believe that the principal blame lies elsewhere. I am 100% certain that Allegra Stratton was not laughing at Covid victims or their families.
Rather she was laughing at the absurdity of trying to come up with a sane response to the indefensible. The Downing St reaction is that strict social distancing was maintained at all times and people remained within lockdown rules. This during an alcohol available Christmas party for dozens of people, sharing secret Santas, and even if the party did take place, which it didn’t, it was a business gathering. Are you kidding me? The Lewis Carroll absurdity of it all is risible, yes laughable. And no wonder she was stuck for a response.
Boris Johnson made the situation worse, not only by denying a party ever took place, but by sending his minions out to parrot that “people stayed within the rules at all times within No. 10”. One couldn’t help remembering Irish Ministers categorically denying in front of TV cameras that the Government was in discussion with the International Monetary Fund, even as members of the IMF landing party drove their tanks up to the lawns of Leinster House.
By the end of the week Johnson was still denying that the party ever happened, a claim believed by just one in 10, according to a Sky News poll. He said that he had been assured by senior advisers that a party didn’t take place, but if it did, he didn’t know about it. He is obviously a fan of the Bart Simpson defence, “I didn't do it. No one saw me do it. You can't prove a thing”.
Of course it didn’t have to be like this. It is well reported that Johnson has unbridled faith in his own ability and is reluctant to take advice.
The PR guidebook 101 would have been to come out and admit that this and other parties occurred. We made a Horlicks of the situation. No excuses. It should never have happened. We apologise to the British people for the cock up. Yes it would have taken a media and Opposition beating for a day or two but that would have been better than the drip feed of the last ten days. Not to mention the reputational damage to Boris Johnson and increasing voter perception that he has a casual acquaintance with the truth.
The UK Department for Education came out with its hands up, admitted to a party and said it made a mistake. More or less end of story.
Now media are sniffing around other parties which may have taken place at No 10, including some allegedly attended and addressed by the PM himself. More damaging, the BBC and others have reported that a party was held, despite pandemic restrictions, in the flat (private residence) of the Johnsons at No. 10 on 13th and 27th of November that year.
It has all the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy. It will be ironic if the Prime Minister’s hubris on this matter is the cause of his downfall. The banner on the lead page of Thursday’s pro-Tory ‘Daily Telegraph’ read, “Beginning of the end for Boris?”
Francis Elliot in the ‘Sunday Times’ commented, “Lies about gatherings at No 10 are testing even the patience of diehard supporters. Is the PM’s party finally over?”
Partygate is a PR disaster. But the real blame lies (no pun intended) with a) whoever sanctioned and thought it was a good idea to hold Christmas parties in the first place at a time of clear pandemic restrictions and b) the denials and botched attempt to cover up the sorry mess which draw attention to the Prime Minister’s “interesting relationship with the truth” as put by one former aide reported in the ‘Sunday Times’. (Former Tory MP and Times columnist Matthew Parris referred to him on BBC’s ‘Newsnight’ as “Pinocchio”).
Allegra Stratton was trying to do her job. She is an intelligent former journalist (not an oxymoron). I find it hard to condemn her for reacting to the farcical nature of the situation in which she found herself, when the principal blame lies elsewhere within No 10.
Another (male) PR adviser pictured sharing in the joviality at the mock No 10 press conference was reported to have offered his resignation to Boris Johnson which was not accepted. One law for female PR people and another for male under the current Prime Minister?
However, Stratton may not be the first staff member in 10 Downing St to be thrown under the bus. When it comes to buses, Mr Johnson has form.
Mr Johnson’s “superpower” is his electoral appeal. Think Brexit and 2019 general election landslide. If the Tories lose Thursday’s North Shropshire by-election or see a severe dent in its 20,000 plus majority in this safe seat, then this power will be called into question by nervous backbenchers.