Last night a video from December 2020 surfaced showing Allegra Stratton - then the prime minister’s press secretary - giving a mock TV briefing in which she jokes about “a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night”.
It’s a painful twist of the knife, the video seems to imply a gathering of Number 10 officials at a time when the country was in a lockdown which separated families. “It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine…” laughs an aide at one point; “is cheese and wine alright?” Stratton shoots back.
In the past few weeks Boris Johnson has repeatedly denied that any such event took place; this footage, though - obtained by ITV and which was shot on 22 December - has led to fresh allegations of lies by the Tory leadership and has made Stratton the latest face of government sleaze.
So who is Allegra Stratton?
Named after Byron’s illegitimate daughter, she was born in Chiswick and is close to her two younger sisters and brother. Her father is an international translator, her mother was a librarian and is now a textile artist. They divorced when Stratton was young and her mother married a vicar with a parish in Oxfordshire. Allegra went to Latymer Upper School, where alumni include Hugh Grant. She liked rowing on the Thames (and going to the pubs in Hammersmith afterwards). Contemporaries say she wanted to be a journalist from a young age and had an analytical mind. She studied archaeology and anthropology at Emmanuel College Cambridge, then got a job as a producer at the BBC before going on to be a political correspondent at The Guardian. In 2006 she wrote a book, Muhajababes, about youth culture in the Arab world. ‘She came across as a centre-left Guardianista,’ says a former colleague. ‘She was definitely a rising star’.
In her 20s she went out with Guardian journalist Aditya Chakrabortty, she was friends with the late Labour MP Jo Cox (she was murdered in her Birstall constituency in 2016) and close to Ed Miliband. In 2010 she signed up with Simon and Schuster to write a book about David and Ed Miliband with Lance Price, a former special adviser to Tony Blair. ‘If Allegra was a Tory at that time she kept it quiet,’ says a former colleague. ‘For various reasons, including Allegra going cold on the idea, the book wasn’t written.’
In 2012 she moved to Newsnight as political editor. Shortly after starting the job, she was criticised for the way she spoke to a single mother claiming housing benefit — the woman said she felt Stratton misrepresented her as unemployed. Twenty-thousand people signed a petition demanding an apology and one was issued. She also refused to take part in the broadcast in which Lord McAlpine was wrongly smeared as a child molester because she was unconvinced by the story.
Her move into politics in April 2020 came as a surprise to friends. At the time Stratton was national editor at ITV news - a role she gave up to work as Rishi Sunak’s director of strategic communications (Stratton came up with the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ slogan). Perhaps, though, she was persuaded to make the leap thanks to her close personal ties to Sunak, who’s been her husband’s best friend since school.
She started going out with her husband, James Forsyth (now The Spectator’s political editor), in 2009. When the pair married, Sunak was Forsyth’s best man (the two couples are now godparents to each other’s children). As well as the Sunaks being there, Matt Hancock was a guest, as was Ed Miliband, who looked slightly out of his comfort zone among all the Tories (this was exacerbated when they lost the seating plan and he was the last person left standing looking for his place). ‘Allegra and James are both healthily ambitious, that drew them together,’ said a friend. ‘Their marriage is a proper partnership, a bit like Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper’s.’
In the intervening years, Stratton and Forsyth also became close to Dominic Cummings. Forsyth works with Cummings’ wife, Mary Wakefield, at The Spectator and a friend says, ‘they are socially tight, great mates, always in and out of each other’s Islington houses’.
At the time of the December 2020 video, Stratton was gearing up to become a White House-style spokesperson who’d lead daily press briefings on behalf of the Prime Minister. It was a job she seemed well suited for. Of course the job never materialised as the TV briefings were axed and instead Stratton became the government’s COP26 spokesperson. As a former Conservative cabinet minister told The Londoner last month the Government “clearly had not thought through the idea of appointing a spokesperson to do on-camera briefings” and the climate job was “inevitably temporary”. They added: “Allegra is very capable and it is a waste of her talents — not to mention the cost to taxpayers — if she is left without a proper role”.
During Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday Boris Johnson said he was “furious to see that clip” and asked the Cabinet Secretary to “establish all the facts and report back as soon as possible.” The PM also said there would be disciplinary action for those involved if any rules had been broken. Despite this, many assumed that Stratton’s ‘insider’ status would cushion her from any serious repercussions — an assumption that didn’t bear out. She resigned from her role as the government’s COP26 spokesperson a few hours later.
The video has proven to be a damning blow to the government. As Becky Kummer a spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice said: “There are simply no words to describe how upsetting and shameful it is then to hear Boris Johnson’s team laughing about breaking the rules they had made, whilst others followed them and could only say goodbye to their loved ones through a screen. It’s the behaviour of people who think they’re above us.”