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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, in London, on Jan. 12.JESSICA TAYLOR/AFP/Getty Images

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing growing calls to resign over allegations that he and his staff repeatedly flouted COVID-19 restrictions by holding a series of parties at the Prime Minister’s Downing Street office.

After days of avoiding questions about a staff gathering in May, 2020, Mr. Johnson offered a lengthy apology to the House of Commons on Wednesday.

“I want to apologize,” he told MPs. He acknowledged the many sacrifices people have made during the pandemic, and said, “I know the rage they feel with me and with the government I lead when they think in Downing Street itself the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules.”

The scandal has been simmering for weeks amid a steady trickle of revelations about various social gatherings at Downing Street in 2020, when the country was in near-total lockdown.

On Monday, an e-mail surfaced from Mr. Johnson’s private secretary inviting more than 100 staffers to a “bring your own booze” party at Downing Street on May 20, 2020. At the time, COVID-19 regulations banned social gatherings and limited people to meeting with just one person from another household outdoors. Roughly 30 people are believed to have attended the party, including the Prime Minister and his wife.

Mr. Johnson tried to fend off the controversy by insisting no rules had been broken and by appointing a top civil servant, Sue Gray, to investigate the allegations.

He confirmed he attended the party for 25 minutes to thank staff. But he said he believed it was a work event, which would have been allowed under the rules in place at the time.

“With hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside,” he said. “I should have found some other way to thank them, and I should have recognized that – even if it could have been said technically to fall within the guidance – there would be millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson offered his "heartfelt apologies" on Wednesday for attending a 'bring your own booze' gathering at his official residence during the country's first coronavirus lockdown as opponents said he must resign. Olivia Chan reports.

Reuters

He added that, although Ms. Gray’s inquiry was continuing, “I have learned enough to know there were things we simply did not get right and I must take responsibility.”

Last month, one of Mr. Johnson’s senior advisers, Allegra Stratton, resigned after a video emerged of her joking about a party. Other photos have appeared showing Mr. Johnson participating in a Christmas quiz in 2020 and joining several colleagues on a patio for wine and cheese that spring.

Mr. Johnson has built much of his political career on an uncanny ability to wriggle out of almost any scandal and emerge unscathed. But that Teflon-like quality appears to be wearing thin. His comments did little to quell the calls for him to resign or the unease among some Tory MPs.

Mr. Johnson’s “defence that he didn’t realize he was at a party is so ridiculous that it’s actually offensive to the British public,” Labour Party Leader Sir Keir Starmer said. “He’s finally been forced to admit what everyone knew: that when the whole country was locked down, he was hosting boozing parties in Downing Street. Is he now going to do the decent thing and resign?”

Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale described Mr. Johnson as a “dead man walking.”

“Unfortunately, what the Prime Minister has said today leaves people like me in an impossible situation,” he told BBC Radio. “We now know that the Prime Minister spent 25 minutes at what was quite clearly a party. That means that he misled the House.”

The leader of the Conservatives in Scotland, Douglas Ross, said Mr. Johnson had to resign. “I said [Tuesday] if the Prime Minister attended this gathering, party, event in Downing Street on May 20, then he could not continue as Prime Minister. So regretfully I have to say his position is no longer tenable.”

But other Conservatives welcomed Mr. Johnson’s apology and said forcing him out was unlikely. “I think when somebody makes an apology like that, reasonable people accept the apology,” Tory MP Christopher Chope said.

Health experts said the controversy had undermined public confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic and could weaken attempts to tighten restrictions.

Like most countries, Britain has seen a massive surge in infections because of the Omicron variant, and hospital admissions have risen sharply.

So far, the government has maintained fairly limited restrictions on social movements, and daily case counts have begun to fall. But experts warn that could change and tighter measures could become necessary.

“The negative impact that controversies like the current alleged Downing Street garden party can have on public trust in government cannot be understated,” said Simon Williams, a senior lecturer in people and organization at Swansea University.

“Research has shown that trust is one of the most important predictors of whether people follow COVID rules and guidance.”

Conservative MPs have shown little reluctance in the past to oust their leaders. Under the party’s rules, a group made up of just 15 per cent of Tory MPs – in the current House, that would be 54 – can request a vote of confidence in the leader. If that vote were triggered and Mr. Johnson failed to win 50-per-cent support among all Conservative MPs, he would have to step down.

But even winning a confidence vote isn’t always enough. In 2019, Theresa May was forced out by backbenchers even though she’d won a confidence vote seven months earlier.