An investigation released Wednesday blamed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other senior leaders for allowing boozy government parties that broke the U.K.’s COVID-19 lockdown rules, and while Johnson said he took “full responsibility” for the breach, he insisted he would not resign.
Revelations that Johnson and his staff repeatedly flouted restrictions they imposed on the country in 2020 and 2021 have fueled outrage in Britain and led to calls from opponents for Johnson to step down over the scandal known as “partygate.”
Most lawmakers in Johnson’s governing Conservative Party have so far stood by him, and it’s not yet clear if senior civil servant Sue Gray’s much-anticipated report will change that.
Gray investigated 16 gatherings attended by Johnson and his staff while U.K. residents were barred from socializing, or even from visiting sick and dying relatives, because of coronavirus restrictions.
Gray’s report concluded that the “senior leadership team … must bear responsibility” for a culture that allowed events to take place that “should not have been allowed to happen.”
She said there had been “failures of leadership and judgment in No. 10,” a reference to the prime minister’s 10 Downing St. office.
“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 fines for 83 people —including Johnson — making him the first British prime minister ever found to have broken the law while in office.
Speaking to lawmakers after the report was published, Johnson said he took “full responsibility for everything that took place,” adding that he was sorry but insisted that he did not knowingly break any rules. He said he was “humbled” and had “learned a lesson” but that it was now time to “move on” and focus on bolstering the economy.
Critics, some of them inside the Conservative Party, have said Johnson lied to Parliament about the events. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament are expected to resign.
Johnson insisted that when he told Parliament last year 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 Downing Street office at the height of the pandemic.
Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour 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.”
Gray’s mandate did not allow her to mete out punishment. Much of her 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 staffer warned that journalists would be in the building for a news conference and people should avoid “walking around waving bottles of wine.”
In measured civil service language, Gray slammed the behavior of those involved. She said there were “multiple examples of a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff,” and branded that “unacceptable.”
“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 despite the scandal, partly because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has diverted 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 getting any more fines even though he attended several events under investigation.
Now that Gray and the police have finished their investigations, Johnson’s fate is in the hands of his Conservative Party, which has a history of throwing out leaders who become liabilities. Tory lawmakers say they have received angry messages from voters, and many are uncomfortable defending serial rule-breaking.
Gray’s conclusions could revive calls from Conservative lawmakers for a no-confidence vote in the leader who won them a big parliamentary majority just over two years ago. Under party rules, such a vote is triggered if 15% of party lawmakers — currently 54 — write letters calling for one.
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 legislator 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, said, “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?’”