The 40-second TV clip from Downing Street was never meant for public consumption – and with good reason.
Within 24 hours of its broadcast, the toxic footage of No 10 staff giggling about a lockdown-busting party had detonated a bomb under the Government and led to the tearful resignation of its ‘star’ Allegra Stratton.
It also sparked an immediate hunt for the leaker, whose decision to pass the film to ITV News may even have prompted Boris Johnson to fast-track plans for tighter Covid restrictions.
Downing Street had spent the previous week denying that staff had held a boozy Christmas party last December, complete with Secret Santa games and nibbles, at a time when social gatherings were outlawed.
The leaked footage appeared to prove not only that the party had taken place – but suggested officials thought it was funny.
An intense manhunt is under way to uncover how the secret footage, filmed within the Downing Street complex, has become the subject of a leak. Within 24 hours of its broadcast, the toxic footage led to the tearful resignation of its ‘star’ Allegra Stratton
It showed Miss Stratton holding a mock press conference in preparation for her role as the first PM’s press secretary to hold daily televised briefings.
Fellow adviser Ed Oldfield, son of a wealthy Tory donor, asked her to comment on Twitter rumours of a party in No 10 the previous week, and whether Mr Johnson would condone others holding Christmas events.
A flustered Miss Stratton laughed and said she ‘went home’ that night, before asking: ‘What’s the answer?’
Another aide claimed it ‘wasn’t a party … it was only cheese and wine’.
No 10 staffers in the new £2.6million briefing room then laughed as Miss Stratton tried to press on, suggesting it was a ‘business meeting’.
Now an intense hunt is under way to uncover how secret footage, filmed within the Downing Street complex, has become the subject of a leak.
It showed Miss Stratton holding a mock press conference in preparation for her role as the first PM’s press secretary to hold daily televised briefings
Suspicion fell initially on Miss Stratton’s enemies in government. The former TV journalist is generally a well-liked figure in No10, with many aides feeling she was harshly treated when the PM decided to scrap the televised press briefings he had asked her to front.
But she was a bitter foe of Dominic Cummings and his former press chief Lee Cain, who she helped force from office last year.
‘You couldn’t help but wonder whether Dom had a hand in it in some way,’ one source said. ‘He has the motive – the leak damages the PM and he loathes Allegra.
‘But he had gone by the time that video was filmed and has no real allies inside the building any more. Could he have got his hands on it? It’s possible.’
Miss Stratton has also been accused by some in No 10 of being the source of a brutal briefing to the BBC about the PM last month.
No 10 staffers in the new £2.6million briefing room then laughed as Miss Stratton tried to press on, suggesting it was a ‘business meeting’
Speaking on the day of his shambolic speech to the CBI, in which he spoke at length about Peppa Pig, the source said: ‘It’s just not working. Cabinet needs to wake up and demand serious changes otherwise it’ll keep getting worse. If they don’t insist, he just won’t do anything about it.’
Miss Stratton has strenuously denied being the so-called ‘Chatty Pig’ who briefed the BBC.
Some initially thought the leak of her mock conference might have been a misguided attempt to damage her and force her out.
However attention quickly turned to the small army of hired hands who helped turn the former privy council courtroom in 9 Downing Street into a plush media suite.
One well-placed source claimed the original footage had been deleted and suggested that the leaked clip may have been filmed off a TV monitor.
‘If you look closely, you can see there is something weird about the aspect ratio – the picture looks squashed. It isn’t from an official camera – it’s someone filming it privately, maybe off one of the monitors. It looks like someone has just hung on to a copy.’
Several contractors had links to ITV News, where the leak emerged. Another source said a freelancer routinely filmed Miss Stratton’s performances on his iPad.
The source said it came to light earlier this year that the contractor was still in possession of the footage after he left, adding: ‘Allegra was quite worried about it.’
Stephen Gaisford, a communications specialist at the firm Grit, which helped film the footage at the rehearsal, denied leaking it.
But he said he had been unimpressed by the observance of Covid rules in No 10 and believed he caught the virus there.
He welcomed the video leak, adding: ‘It opens a wider conversation about behaviour during this period and the Government’s responsibility to the people of this country.
‘It goes far beyond whether a party took place. It’s about whether those setting the rules are following the rules. When I walked through the Downing Street front door, I was met by people not wearing masks.
There was no social distancing that I could see.’
An industry source said it was just as likely that the leak had started inside No 10.
‘The video footage from these sessions was sent to nine people on email – that includes No 10 press people, staff from the events team and civil servants,’ the source said. Another insider added: ‘We should never have built that media room. It is cursed.’
Mr Johnson yesterday repeated his insistence that no rules had been broken at Downing Street.