British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing renewed political pressure after a preliminary report regarding allegations his staff repeatedly violated COVID-19 restrictions found leadership failures at Downing Street and highlighted heavy drinking.
Senior civil servant Sue Gray has been investigating reports that Mr. Johnson’s staff held 16 parties at Downing Street in 2020 and 2021 when the country was under lockdown.
“At least some of the gatherings in question represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time,” Ms. Gray wrote in her report, released Monday. “Some of the events should not have been allowed to take place. Other events should not have been allowed to develop as they did.”
Ms. Gray also said “the excessive consumption of alcohol is not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time” and added that the overall structure of Downing Street was “fragmented and complicated.”
Her final report won’t be handed down until after London’s Metropolitan Police finish their investigation into 12 of the 16 parties involving the most serious allegations. The maximum penalty for violating COVID-19 control measures is a fine of as much as £10,000.
In a statement to the House of Commons Monday, Mr. Johnson apologized for the conduct and promised to make changes to how his office is managed.
“Firstly I want to say sorry, and I’m sorry for the things we simply didn’t get right and also sorry for the way this matter has been handled,” he said. “But it isn’t enough to say sorry. This is a moment when we must look at ourselves in the mirror and we must learn. And while the Metropolitan Police must yet complete their investigation, I of course accept Sue Gray’s general findings in full. … I get it and I will fix it.”
Monday’s report won’t end the scandal or the questions about the continuation of Mr. Johnson’s leadership. Reports about parties at Downing Street have been swirling for months, along with allegations that the Prime Minister’s office has a culture of drinking. Mr. Johnson has acknowledged attending one function for about 25 minutes but insisted he thought it was a work event.
Opposition parties heaped scorn on Mr. Johnson Monday and demanded he resign. The Prime Minister “held people’s sacrifice in contempt, he showed himself unfit for office,” Labour Party Leader Sir Keir Starmer said. “Rather than come clean, every step of the way he’s insulted the public’s intelligence. And now he’s finally fallen back on his usual excuse – it’s everybody’s fault but his.”
But it’s Mr. Johnson’s Conservative colleagues who pose his biggest threat. So far only a handful of Tory MPs have publicly called on him to resign, but many more have privately questioned whether he should remain in office.
Under Conservative party rules, 15 per cent of Tory MPs – 54 in this Parliament – are needed to trigger a vote of confidence in the leader. Mr. Johnson would then have to win the support of 50 per cent of Tory MPs, which would be 181. Failing that, he would have to step down and would not be allowed to run in a subsequent leadership race.
On Monday, former prime minister Theresa May, whom Mr. Johnson replaced as leader, pointedly challenged him in the House of Commons. Ms. May said Ms. Gray’s report showed that Downing Street officials weren’t following COVID-19 rules they’d imposed on the public. Either Mr. Johnson and his staff “had not read the rules or didn’t understand what they meant or they didn’t think the rules applied to them. Which was it?” she asked.
Tory MP Andrew Mitchell told the House he’d backed Mr. Johnson for decades but, because of Ms. Gray’s report, he said the Prime Minister “no longer enjoys my support.” And in an emotional appeal, Tory MP Aaron Bell described how he attended his grandmother’s funeral on the date of one alleged party.
“I didn’t hug my siblings. I didn’t hug my parents,” he said. “I gave a eulogy and then afterwards I didn’t even go to her house for a cup of tea. Does the Prime Minister think I am a fool?”
Mr. Johnson fended off the questions with further apologies and assurances that his office would change. He also gave a vigorous defence of his government’s handling of the pandemic, Brexit and the economy. Several other Tory MPs offered their support for Mr. Johnson and said the allegations had become a distraction.
There could still be more to come from Ms. Gray. She has gathered extensive material during her investigation and interviewed 70 Downing Street staff. She has also turned more than 300 photographs to the police and 500 pages of documents.
In her preliminary report she noted that the police had asked her to make only “minimal reference” to the 12 gatherings that officers are reviewing. “Unfortunately, this necessarily means that I am extremely limited in what I can say about those events,” she wrote.
However, it’s clear she plans to submit a final report once the police probe is over – and that could prove even more damaging to Mr. Johnson.
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