Will serial partying amid pandemic prove the one scandal Boris Johnson can’t survive?
Being known as a raffish rule-breaker has always been a key element of Boris Johnson’s political brand. And it worked ever so well — until suddenly it didn’t.
The British prime minister, 57, stands at the most precarious juncture of his career, hammered by resignation demands from political foes and an outraged citizenry. Britain has been in an uproar for weeks over revelations of serial revelry at Johnson’s Downing Street office and residence, in violation of restrictions aimed at stemming the COVID-19 pandemic.
The calls for his ouster could come to a head as early as this week, with a damning official report by a senior civil servant expected to land at any time.
Scotland Yard is also investigating the extent of the alcohol-fueled parties — some alleged, some already acknowledged — which coincided with some of Britain’s most stringent pandemic lockdowns. Johnson is accused by opponents of lying to lawmakers about his awareness of the gatherings.
Since reports of the forbidden festivities began emerging in earnest late last year, Britons who suffered lonely bereavement during the pandemic have poured out their painful stories on social media and in print and broadcast interviews.
In often-stoic fashion, the obscure and famous alike detailed the excruciating consequences of adhering to government rules that were imposed to combat the virus’ spread: forced absences from the bedside of dying loved ones, curtailed or canceled funeral rites, the inability to comfort those closest to them.
“Pain like ours was tearing through families the world over,” actor-playwright Rory Kinnear wrote in a searing column for the Guardian newspaper in which he described burying his disabled sister, who died of COVID-19, on May 20, 2020 — the same day one of the parties reportedly took place.
“So, in some ways, it felt like we were all in it together… Well, not all of us, it turned out,” he wrote.
For a politician who for so long has been able to talk his way out of trouble, Johnson — memorably dubbed a political “greased piglet” by some fellow Conservatives — has lately appeared unaccustomedly crestfallen at times.
Interviewed on Sky News last week, with eyes cast down and head hanging, he looked deflated and dejected as he repeatedly apologized for “misjudgment” in attending the May 2020 garden party. He said he stayed less than half an hour, and that he considered it a work event.
“Nobody told me that what we were doing was, as you say, against the rules,” he said.
The wrenching contrast — rowdy Downing Street gatherings coinciding with an austere interlude of national sacrifice — was epitomized by the resurfacing of a poignant picture of 95-year-old Queen Elizabeth II, a beloved figure after nearly seven decades on the throne.
A widely circulated photo taken at last April’s funeral service for her husband of 73 years, Prince Philip, showed the monarch dressed in black, with matching mask and hat — seated all alone, in adherence to social-distancing rules.
A British newspaper, the Telegraph, revealed in a
Jan. 13 report that on the eve of the funeral, two social gatherings had been held at Downing Street, raucous affairs that involved the use of a suitcase to haul in supermarket-purchased wine.
Johnson apologized to her majesty, but the damage was done.
The prime minister was apparently not present for the funeral-eve parties, but he has acknowledged attending at least one other garden gathering that took place during lockdown, and an indoor birthday celebration. That has set off a drumbeat of headlines, featuring endless variations on the phrase “the party’s over.”
In a weekly ritual that has taken a brutal turn with this scandal, Johnson has appeared before Parliament for questioning, drawing furious reprimands for allegedly condoning an entrenched party culture among those in his office circle.
At Wednesday’s session, the leader of the opposition Labor Party, Keir Starmer, pointed to what he suggested was a violation by Johnson of a ministerial code forbidding misleading statements to lawmakers. The prime minister had previously told members of Parliament that at Downing Street, “all guidance was followed” on social gatherings during lockdowns.
“Will he now resign?” Starmer demanded. Johnson insisted he would continue “getting on with the job.”
In response to earlier queries, the prime minister made the much-mocked contention that he “implicitly” believed one party to have been a work event. Fielding another hostile question, he said he had not been aware that the parties flouted coronavirus restrictions — rules that he himself promulgated.
A senior civil servant, Sue Gray, has been tasked with investigating alleged violations of the virus restrictions. Her report — expected any day now — is hanging over Johnson in a manner that the prime minister, who enjoys declaiming in classical Greek, might liken to a sword of Damocles.
Adding to Johnson’s woes, he is also weathering the fallout from a leaked email made public, suggesting he lied when he denied personal involvement in greenlighting the rescue of cats and dogs by a British animal charity last year as thousands of desperate Afghans were trying to flee the conquering Taliban.
Friends and foes alike now seem to believe that it is not a question of if, but when, Johnson will leave office. The tabloids — often a crucial barometer of British public opinion — have roundly turned against him. “DISGRACE,” one bannered.
Last week, Johnson’s health secretary, Sajid Javid, acknowledged that the contretemps was damaging to Britain’s venerable democratic tradition of policing by consent, which is dependent on most people being willing to abide by rules.
“It was wrong in every single way,” Javid said, referring to one of the Downing Street drinking sessions that allegedly took place on the eve of Philip’s funeral. “The way we now get through this is to get the facts out, to get them on the table.”
The principal vehicle for that fact-finding will probably be the report by Gray, who is investigating the allegations, including a “bring-your-own-booze” event to which more than 100 people were invited, and other going-away parties for departing staff.
The notion that under Johnson one standard exists for the masses and another for those at the heart of power has generated genuine fury against a leader who has always been able to fend off scandal and controversy with a flippant quip or a sunny parable.
And it eroded what had been a durable political persona as a man of the people — never mind his elite education and posh lifestyle trappings. Johnson took office in July 2019, and five months later won what the British press likes to call a “thumping” parliamentary majority, with his Conservatives taking 365 seats in the 650-seat chamber.
If the Downing Street parties prove Johnson’s downfall, it would be a remarkable reversal of fortunes for a prime minister who has faced little real fallout for Britain’s exit from the European Union, or Brexit, one of the country’s most consequential shifts of the postwar era.
Negative economic repercussions of the split with the bloc, which came to full fruition at the end of 2020 after a yearlong grace period, were somewhat masked by the COVID-19 pandemic, and are only now beginning to be fully felt.
Until now, Johnson had also emerged largely unscathed from his uneven pandemic performance, which included an insouciant early approach to social distancing and masking, a penchant that might have contributed to his own near-fatal brush with the virus in 2020.
Britain’s COVID-19 death toll has surpassed 155,000, with among the highest fatality rates in Western Europe.
For Johnson to be forced out by his own party, Conservative lawmakers would need to submit letters of no confidence to Sir Graham Brady, who chairs an influential panel known as the 1922 Committee.
If Brady received letters from the equivalent of 15% of Conservative lawmakers, about 50, a no-confidence vote would be triggered.
In the meantime, the snubs keep coming. Award-winning artist Tracey Emin wrote to Johnson’s staff to ask that a piece of her artwork — a neon sign spelling out “More Passion” — be removed from Downing Street.
“More Passion,” she wrote on Instagram, “is the last thing this present government needs.”
Special correspondent Boyle reported from London and Times staff writer King from Washington.
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