On Monday, British Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi insisted that Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not break COVID-19 lockdown rules in mid-December 2020, when he hosted a staff Christmas quiz on Downing Street.
After a photo of Boris Johnson hosting a Downing Street quiz last year was published by the British tabloid, The Mirror, on Sunday, UK Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner accused the British prime minister of potentially misleading parliament over his claims that no rules were broken during No 10 parties amid tier 2 coronavirus restrictions last year.
“It appears that Boris Johnson lied to the country and broke the law. It is increasingly clear that the prime minister presided over a culture of ignoring the rules that he told everyone else to follow. It’s time to fess up”, Rayner stated.
She was referring to the British prime minister’s previous assurances that no rules were breached during a number of parties held on Downing Street in late 2020, when strict lockdown rules limited family Christmas get-togethers to six people from no more than three households.
The photo, published by The Mirror, was said to show Johnson hosting a Christmas quiz on Downing Street “in breach of COVID laws” imposed on London and most of the country in 2020.
Several unnamed government sources were cited by the newspaper as saying that four teams made up of six people attended the 15 December 2020 quiz while they huddled round computer screens.
One of the sources claimed that Johnson “turned a blind eye [as] he seemed totally comfortable with gatherings”.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi was quick to respond that the PM was “respecting the lockdown rules” when he played quizmaster via a video call during last December’s office gathering.
“What do we see in that picture? We see a prime minister on a virtual quiz night for 10 to 15 minutes to thank his staff who by the way had no choice but to come in every single day”, Zahawi told Sky News.
He added that he believed “people will look at that picture today […] and will think hold on a second, he [Johnson] is on a virtual call, no alcohol, thanking his staff for 10 minutes before he goes back to work, is that really a terrible crime?”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, for his part, argued that “it appears” the prime minister broke the COVID rules and “we will have to look into it but it is very hard to see how that is compliant with the rules”.
He made the remarks amid a Daily Mail report that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case’s ongoing probe into Downing Street’s “boozy” parties will include a review of whether Johnson broke the law by personally hosting a No 10 quiz.
With Johnson now under pressure over the Christmas parties-related controversy, he “could potentially be facing the largest rebellion of his premiership” as over 60 Tory MPs may say “no” to the approval of new restrictive COVID measures during Tuesday’s vote, according to the UK media.
Labour leader Starmer has, meanwhile, confirmed that his party will support the government in the vote on Johnson’s Plan B.
He told the BBC that he was “not supporting the prime minister on Tuesday” but was backing “our NHS [National Health System] and […] the public in relation to this pandemic”.
Referring to the fresh restrictions, the Labour leader stressed that while he is not “comfortable” with the idea of introducing vaccine passports, he has been “persuaded that it is necessary”.
In a separate development, The Mirror quoted Labour candidate Ben Wood as saying that frustrated voters are ready to punish Johnson as they will cast ballots in Thursday’s North Shropshire by-election to replace embattled lawmaker Owen Paterson, who resigned in November after breaking lobbying rules.
“We’re getting a lot of support from lifelong Tories who feel they have been taken for granted. The Christmas party has cut through like nothing I’ve ever known. People are angry. Last Christmas, we couldn’t see family when we wanted to, we all made sacrifices – it’s this idea that it’s one rule for them and one rule for us”, Wood emphasised.