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Boris Johnson faulted for office lockdown parties but won’t quit as prime minister

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking in the House of Commons in London.
(Associated Press)

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other senior British officials bear responsibility for a culture of rule-breaking that resulted in several parties that breached COVID-19 lockdown rules, a highly anticipated report on the events said Wednesday.

Revelations that Johnson and his staff repeatedly flouted the rules that they imposed on the rest of the nation have elicited outrage in Britain and led to calls from opponents for the prime minister to resign. But most lawmakers in his Conservative Party have so far stood by him.

Johnson said he took “full responsibility for everything that took place” but that he would not step down.

In her report into the “partygate” scandal, senior civil servant Sue Gray said the “senior leadership team ... must bear responsibility” for a culture that allowed events to take place that “should not have been allowed to happen.”

Gray investigated 16 gatherings attended by Johnson and his staff in 2020 and 2021 while people in Britain were barred from socializing, or even from visiting sick and dying relatives, because of coronavirus restrictions.

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Gray said there had been “failures of leadership and judgment” in the prime minister’s office.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under fire over a party held in the garden of 10 Downing St. when the rest of Britain was under strict lockdown.

“Those in the most junior positions attended gatherings at which their seniors were present, or indeed organized,” she said.

A separate police investigation resulted in 83 people getting hit with fines, including Johnson — making him the first British prime minister ever found to have broken the law while in office.

Speaking to lawmakers in the House of Commons after the report was published, Johnson said he was sorry but again insisted again that he did not knowingly break any rules.

The prime minister said that he was “humbled” and had “learned a lesson” but that it was now time to “move on” and focus on the government’s priorities.

The British leader has been faulted for being too slow to aid Ukrainian refugees and impose sanctions on Russian oligarchs.

Critics, some of them inside Johnson’s party, have said the prime minister has lied to Parliament about the events. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament are expected to resign.

Johnson said Wednesday that when he told Parliament last year that no rules were broken and there were no parties, “it was what I believed to be true.”

The British media and opposition politicians have found that hard to square with staff members’ accounts of “bring your own booze” parties and regular “wine time Fridays” in the prime minister’s 10 Downing St. office at the height of the pandemic.

Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labor Party, said Gray’s report was a “catalogue of criminality.” Starmer said Johnson’s government had “treated the sacrifices of the British people with utter contempt.”

Much of Gray’s 37-page report is devoted to a detailed account of the events, including a May 2020 party in the Downing Street garden to which “the Prime Minister brought cheese and wine from his flat” and a party the following month at which “one individual was sick” 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 broke a swing belonging to Johnson’s toddler son, Wilf, and partied until 4 a.m.

The report includes emails and WhatsApp messages suggesting that staff members knew they were breaking the rules. One invitation was changed from “Wine and Cheese Evening” to “End of Year Meeting with Wine & Cheese.” On another occasion, a staff member warned that journalists would be in the building for a news conference and people should avoid “walking around waving bottles of wine.”

In the measured language of Britain’s civil service, Gray criticized the behavior of those involved. She said there were “multiple examples of a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff,” branding it as “unacceptable.”

The loss of a seat held by the Conservative Party for about 200 years is being seen by many as a referendum on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

“Many will be dismayed that behavior of this kind took place on this scale at the heart of government,” Gray wrote. “The public have a right to expect the very highest standards of behavior in such places and clearly what happened fell well short of this.”

Johnson has clung to power so far, partly because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine diverted public and political attention. Some Conservatives who considered seeking a no-confidence vote in their leader decided it would be rash to push Johnson out in the middle of the war, which is destabilizing Europe and fueling a cost-of-living crisis.

The prime minister got a further reprieve when the Metropolitan Police told him last week that he wouldn’t be receiving any more fines even though he attended several events under investigation.

But Gray’s conclusions could revive calls from Conservative lawmakers for a no-confidence vote in the leader who won them a big parliamentary majority slightly more than two years ago. Under party rules, such a vote is triggered if 15% of party lawmakers — currently 54 people — write letters calling for one.

Government coronavirus restrictions have ended in England, including the mandate for people who test positive for COVID-19 to isolate at home.

If Johnson lost such a vote, he would be replaced as Conservative leader and prime minister. It’s unclear how many letters have been submitted so far.

Conservative Party lawmaker Robert Jenrick said that “with a war in Europe, with an economic crisis … it is now time to turn a page” and leave “partygate” behind.

But another Conservative, Tobias Ellwood, told the House of Commons: “I’ve made my point and my position very clear to the prime minister: He does not have my support.

“But a question I humbly put to my colleagues is: Are you willing day in and day out to defend this behavior publicly?”


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