British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has issued a renewed apology for the conduct of his staff after an internal investigation found widespread drinking, violations of COVID-19 restrictions and abuse of cleaning staff at Downing Street.
“I am humbled and I have learned,” Mr. Johnson told the House of Commons on Wednesday. “I also want to say above all that I take full responsibility for everything that took place on my watch.”
His comments came in response to the final report of Sue Gray, a senior civil servant who has been reviewing allegations that officials at Downing Street and the Cabinet Office held 16 social gatherings in 2020 and 2021 while Britain was under pandemic lockdowns. Mr. Johnson attended about half the events, although at times he stayed for only a few minutes.
In her report, released Wednesday, Ms. Gray painted a picture of occasionally raucous parties and a work culture in which “Wine Time Friday” was a ritual.
She highlighted one Downing Street gathering on April 16, 2021 – the eve of the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh – that went on until well past midnight, with one participant leaving at 4:30 a.m.
During another party, on June 18, 2020, some staff brought pizza and prosecco, and Helen MacNamara, the deputy cabinet secretary, provided a karaoke machine, according to the report. Ms. Gray added that “there was excessive alcohol consumption by some individuals” and “one individual was sick.” There was also a “minor altercation between two other individuals.”
The report also contained nine photographs of Mr. Johnson holding up a glass and looking animated during several events. And Ms. Gray published e-mails and text messages from officials inviting staff to various functions and in some cases explaining away the conduct. In one text, Martin Reynolds, Mr. Johnson’s principal private secretary, told a colleague: “Best of luck – a complete non-story but better than them focusing on our drinks (which we seem to have got away with).” And in a text from another official, drunk staff were advised to leave by a back door so as to avoid the media.
Ms. Gray also found multiple examples of “a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff,” who at times expressed concerns about the parties.
“Whatever the initial intent, what took place at many of these gatherings and the way in which they developed was not in line with COVID guidance at the time,” Ms. Gray concluded. “The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture.”
Allegations about the parties have been swirling for months, and in January Ms. Gray issued a preliminary report that found Downing Street suffered from a “failure of leadership.” She reiterated that conclusion Wednesday.
Her work was put on hold in February when London’s Metropolitan Police force began investigating 12 of the gatherings. The police have now issued 126 fines to 83 officials for violations of COVID-19 restrictions. Mr. Johnson received one £50 fine, as did his wife, Carrie Johnson, and Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. They all attended a birthday celebration for the Prime Minister at Downing Street on June 19, 2020, which violated lockdown rules.
When the police probe ended, Ms. Gray resumed her investigation.
After acknowledging the severity of the findings Wednesday, Mr. Johnson urged MPs and the public to move on from the scandal. “I hope that today, as well as learning the lessons from Sue Gray’s report, we will be able to move on and focus on the priorities of the British people,” he said.
The findings are unlikely to trigger any immediate threat to Mr. Johnson’s leadership. He has largely weathered the storm over the controversy, and on Wednesday only a couple of Conservative MPs said he should resign. That differed from January, when his leadership came into question after Ms. Gray’s interim report. However, the war in Ukraine and concerns about inflation have shifted public attention.
“Boris Johnson will most likely survive the year and potentially beyond,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent. However, Dr. Goodwin said, Mr. Johnson still faces challenges. “There is growing disquiet within the Conservative parliamentary party over not just ‘partygate’ but the government’s economic strategy. The highest tax burden since the 1950s, the lack of action on an escalating cost-of-living crisis and spiralling levels of immigration have left many MPs wondering whether the Conservative Party is what its name implies.”
One factor in Mr. Johnson’s favour is that opposition leader Keir Starmer is also facing allegations of violating COVID-19 restrictions.
Sir Keir was photographed holding a bottle during a gathering in Durham on April 30, 2021, while campaigning in a by-election. He has insisted that he and the others were eating while working late. And he has said that he will resign if Durham Police find he violated pandemic restrictions. He reiterated that pledge Wednesday.
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