Boris Johnson Fights On After Apology for Lockdown Garden Party
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is fighting on after apologizing for attending an apparently rule-breaking Downing Street garden party during lockdown.
“There were things we simply did not get right,” he told the House of Commons on Wednesday, saying that while he believed it had been a “work” event, “I must take responsibility.”
Johnson’s second apology in barely a month came after two days of stonewalling since ITV reported that a top aide of the premier had invited about 100 people to a drinks party in the No. 10 garden in May 2020. Such gatherings were banned at the time as the U.K. battled the first wave of Covid-19 infections.
The episode has called the survival of Johnson as premier into question. His fate is in the hands of Conservative MPs, who can trigger a leadership contest if more than 15% of their number submit letters of no confidence. Roger Gale, a Conservative grandee, told BBC Radio that he had submitted a letter.
“We now know that the prime minister spent 25 minutes at what was quite clearly a party and that means he misled the House,” Gale said. “The backbenches have been placed in an impossible position.”
The number of letters submitted at any one point is a secret, guarded by the chair of the influential backbench 1922 committee of Tory MPs, Graham Brady. Johnson is also waiting for the result of an official probe by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, into alleged lockdown-breaking parties in 10 Downing Street, plus news of potential police involvement.
Johnson said he went into the Downing Street garden -- which he described as an “extension” of the office -- to thank staff.
“With hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside,” he said. “I regret very much we did not do things differently.”
Follow live: U.K.’s Johnson Apologizes Over Party Allegations: TOPLive
The reactions of Johnson’s colleagues during his statement were telling. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss frowned throughout and had her eyes on the green carpets. The MPs behind Johnson were unusually quiet, most remaining silent and downcast. One Tory MP texted from the Commons chamber to say Johnson had done “enough for now”.
Before the session, Tory MPs had warned the prime minister his silence was untenable and that his position would be at risk without a clear account of what happened.
The allegations, which have dominated newspaper front pages and driven a steep decline in support for the Tories in opinion polls, represent a significant moment of peril for Johnson. He’d hoped to begin 2022 with a reset after a turbulent end to last year, which culminated in a damaging loss in a special election.
Instead, Johnson found himself answering questions on alleged law-breaking by a former director of public prosecutions in a packed House of Commons. Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer had been released from self-isolation after contracting Covid-19 just hours before the critical session.
“That apology was pretty worthless,” Starmer said as he called for Johnson to resign. “Why does the prime minister still think the rules don’t apply to him?”
After the session, Johnson made a rare foray to the House of Commons tearoom, meeting with backbenchers to rally support.
Still, the anger among Tories is palpable. Having already been openly critical of Johnson over the affair, former Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson slammed the premier’s response.
The alleged garden party on May 20, 2020 is the latest in a string of allegations about events and gatherings in Johnson’s office.
|Key allegations of parties in Downing Street|
|May 15, 2020||In No. 10 garden. The Guardian published a photo showing Johnson, his wife, and key aides. Prime minister said it shows “people at work, talking about work.”|
|May 20, 2020||The most recent party allegation. ITV published an email from Johnson’s principal private secretary that invited about 100 people to “bring your own booze” to “socially-distanced drinks” in No. 10 garden|
|Nov. 27, 2020||The Daily Mirror reported in November that Johnson gave a speech at packed leaving do for a top aide when the U.K. was in lockdown|
|Dec. 18, 2020||The Daily Mirror’s article about the Nov. 27 event also described a Christmas party on Dec. 18. ITV later published a video showing aides of Johnson apparently joking about the event, one of whom later apologized and quit|
Pandemic curbs in place at the time meant activities were heavily restricted, allowing people to meet only one other person outdoors in a public place. On the day of the alleged gathering, which occurred on the hottest day of the year so far, Johnson’s government had urged the public to stick to the rules.
Johnson is in the unusual position of living and working in the same complex of buildings and gardens in Downing Street, but newspaper reports of staff heading to the local supermarket to buy rose wine, make it difficult for Johnson to defend the event as a work meeting.
The prime minister has so far insisted the issue of whether rule-breaking occurred is a matter for Gray’s probe into a series of reported parties in Downing Street and elsewhere across government.
Yet matters could escalate quickly. Johnson’s office is liaising with the police, and the government has said Gray’s investigation would be paused in the event of a police inquiry.
Despite calling for Johnson’s resignation, Labour’s Starmer has no immediate plans to table a no confidence motion in the premier -- opting instead to wait for Gray’s conclusions.
The Labour leader also has no desire to see the resignation of Johnson’s senior aides -- including Martin Reynolds who sent out the invite to the May 20 event, Starmer’s spokesman told reporters in a regular briefing. “The buck stops with the prime minister,” he said.
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