LONDON (AP) — An investigative report published Wednesday blamed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other top leaders for allowing alcoholic government parties that violated Britain’s COVID-19 lockdown rules, and though Johnson said he assumed “full responsibility” for the infractions, he said he insisted he would not resign.
Revelations that Johnson and his staff repeatedly flouted the restrictions they placed on Britain in 2020 and 2021 have fueled outrage at home and prompted opponents to call for Johnson to resign over the “partygate” scandal.
Most lawmakers from Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party have backed him for now, and it’s not yet clear whether the report by Chief Justice Sue Gray will change that, despite her detailed descriptions of booze-fueled parties in the building where he lives and the prime minister works. .
Gray investigated 16 meetings attended by Johnson and his staff while UK residents were banned from socialising, or even visiting sick and dying relatives, due to coronavirus restrictions.
Gray’s report concluded that the “senior leadership team … must take responsibility” for a culture that breaks the rules. She said there were “failures of leadership and judgement” at the prime minister’s office at 10 Downing St.
“Those in the most junior positions attended meetings where their superiors were present or, in fact, organized,” he said.
A separate police investigation resulted in fines for 83 people, including Johnson, making him the first British Prime Minister to break the law while in office.
Speaking to lawmakers after the report was released, Johnson said he took “full responsibility for everything that happened” and was sorry, but denied knowingly breaking any rules. He said he was “honoured” and that he had “learned a lesson” but that now was the time to “move on” and focus on the ailing British economy and the war in Ukraine.
Critics, some of them in the Conservative Party, have said Johnson lied to Parliament about the facts. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament are expected to resign.
Johnson denied lying. He insisted that when he told Parliament last year that rules were not broken and there were no parties, “it was what I believed to be true”.
Johnson attended several events mentioned in Gray’s report, including a birthday party in June 2020 for which he was fined 50 pounds ($63). He said at a press conference: “I thought they were work events.”
The British media and opposition politicians have found it difficult to square with staff members’ accounts of regular ‘bring your own drink’ parties and ‘wine Fridays’ at the Downing Street office in the midst of the pandemic.
Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labor Party, said Gray’s report was a “catalogue of criminality” and that the Johnson government had “treated the sacrifices of the British people with total contempt”.
Gray’s mandate did not allow him to impose a punishment. Much of his 37-page report is devoted to a detailed account of events, including a May 2020 Downing Street garden party to which “the Prime Minister brought cheese and wine from his apartment” and a party on following month in which “an individual was ill” and “there was a minor altercation between two other individuals”.
At another party held the night before the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II’s husband, Prince Philip, revelers in the garden smashed a swing belonging to Johnson’s infant son, Wilf, and partied until 4 a.m.
The report includes emails and WhatsApp messages that suggest staff members knew they were breaking the rules. Changed an invitation from “Wine and Cheese Night” to “Wine and Cheese New Years Gathering”. 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 wine bottles.”
In measured civil service language, Gray criticized the behavior of those involved. He said there were “multiple examples of disrespect and mistreatment of security and cleaning staff,” calling it “unacceptable.”
“Many will be appalled that behavior of this kind 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 those places and clearly what happened fell far short of this.”
Johnson has clung to power despite the scandal, in part because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has diverted public and political attention. Some conservatives argue that it would be rash to oust Johnson now, regardless of his shortcomings.
The Conservatives have also tried to brush off the criticism by pointing out that Labor Starmer is also facing a police investigation for having a takeaway beer and curry with colleagues in April 2021. He insists the meal was part of a work day and did not breach the rules, but said he will resign if fined by police.
Now that Gray and the police have finished their investigations, Johnson’s fate is in the hands of the Conservative Party, which has a history of ousting leaders who become passive. Conservative lawmakers say they have received angry messages from voters, with many uncomfortable defending serial rule-breaking.
Johnson faces an investigation by a House of Commons rules committee into whether he lied to Parliament. And Gray’s conclusions could revive calls by Conservative lawmakers for a no-confidence vote on the leader who won them a large parliamentary majority in 2019. Under party rules, such a vote is triggered if 15% of party lawmakers , currently 54, write letters calling for one.
If Johnson were to lose that vote, he would be replaced as Conservative leader and prime minister. It is not clear how many letters have been sent so far, although one more was sent on Wednesday. Conservative lawmaker Julian Sturdy said: “I cannot now give the prime minister the benefit of the doubt and I feel it is now in the public interest for him to resign.”
Johnson received a warm reception from Conservative lawmakers at a private meeting in Parliament on Wednesday night. The attendees described him as solemn and conciliatory.
“He completely understands the mood,” said Rep. Jonathan Gullis.
But another Conservative, Tobias Ellwood, told the House of Commons that Johnson had lost his support.
“A question I humbly asked my colleagues is, ‘Are you willing day after day to publicly defend this behavior?’” he said.