LONDON — An investigative report released on Wednesday accused British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other senior leaders of allowing booze government parties that broke COVID-19 lockdown rules in the UK, and although Johnson said he took “full responsibility” for the breach, he insisted he would not resign.
Revelations that Johnson and his staff repeatedly flouted the restrictions they imposed on the country in 2020 and 2021 have fueled outrage in Britain and led opponents to call on Johnson to step aside from the scandal known as the name of “partygate”.
Most lawmakers in Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party have so far backed him, and it’s not yet clear whether senior civil servant Sue Gray’s highly anticipated report will change that.
Gray investigated 16 gatherings Johnson and his staff attended when British residents were barred from socializing, or even visiting sick and dying relatives, due to coronavirus restrictions.
Gray’s report concluded that “the leadership team…must take responsibility” for a culture that allowed events to happen that “shouldn’t have happened.”
She said there had been “failures of leadership and judgment at No 10”, a reference to the Prime Minister’s office at 10 Downing St.
“Those in the most junior positions attended rallies where their superiors were present, even organized,” she said.
A separate police investigation resulted in fines for 83 people – including Johnson – making him the first British prime minister ever found guilty of breaking the law while in office.
Johnson says he takes full responsibility but says it’s time to ‘move on’
Speaking to lawmakers after the report was released, Johnson said he took “full responsibility for everything that happened”, adding he was sorry but insisted he didn’t knowingly broke any rules. He said he was “humbled” and had “learned a lesson”, but now was the time to “move on” and focus on strengthening the economy.
Critics, including some within the Conservative Party, said Johnson lied to Parliament about the events. Ministers who knowingly deceive Parliament are expected to resign.
Johnson insisted that when he told parliament last year that no rules were broken and there were no parties, “that was what I believed to be true”.
British media and opposition politicians have found this difficult to reconcile with stories from staff members of ‘bring your own booze’ parties and regular ‘wine Fridays’ at Downing Street offices. at the height of the pandemic.
Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labor Party, said Gray’s report was a “catalogue of crime”. Starmer said Johnson’s government had “treated the sacrifices of the British people with complete contempt”.
Gray’s warrant did not allow him to inflict punishment. Much of his 37-page report is devoted to a detailed account of events, including a party in May 2020 in the Downing Street garden at which “the Prime Minister brought cheese and wine from his flat” and a party the following month in which “an individual was ill” and “there was a minor altercation between two other individuals”.
At another party – held the day before the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II’s husband Prince Philip – revelers in the garden broke a swing belonging to Johnson’s son Wilf and partied until 4 a.m. in the morning.
The report includes emails and WhatsApp messages suggesting staff knew they were breaking the rules. An invite changed from “Wine and Cheese Night” to “Wine and Cheese Year-End Reunion.” On another occasion, a staff member warned that journalists would be in the building for a press conference and that people should avoid “walking around waving bottles of wine”.
In measured public service language, Gray criticized the behavior of those involved. She said there were “multiple examples of disrespect and mistreatment by security and cleaning staff”, and called it “unacceptable”.
“Many will be appalled that behavior like this has taken place on this scale at the heart of government,” Gray wrote. “The public has a right to expect the highest standards of behavior in such places and it is clear that what happened fell far short of that.”
Johnson clung to power despite the scandal, in part because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine diverted attention. Some Tories who were considering asking for a vote of no confidence in their leader decided it would be unwise to push Johnson into the midst of the war, which is destabilizing Europe and fueling a cost of living crisis.
The Prime Minister was given a further reprieve when the Metropolitan Police told him last week that he would no longer receive fines despite having attended several events under investigation.
Now that Gray and the police have completed their investigations, Johnson’s fate is in the hands of his conservative party, which has a history of kicking out leaders who become liabilities. Conservative lawmakers say they have received angry messages from voters, and many are uncomfortable defending the serial rule-breaking.
Gray’s findings could reignite calls from Conservative lawmakers for a vote of no confidence in the leader that won them a large parliamentary majority just over two years ago. Under party rules, such a vote is triggered if 15% of party lawmakers — currently 54 — write letters asking for one.
If Johnson lost such a vote, he would be replaced as Conservative leader and prime minister. It is not known how many letters have been submitted so far.
Conservative lawmaker Robert Jenrick said that “with a war in Europe, with an economic crisis…now is the time to turn a page” and leave ‘partygate’ behind.
But another Tory, Tobias Ellwood, said: ‘I have made my point and my position clear to the Prime Minister: he does not have my support.
“But a question I have humbly asked my colleagues is ‘are you prepared day in and day out to publicly defend this behavior?'”