Boris Johnson is under renewed pressure over “Partygate” after he, his chancellor Rishi Sunak and his wife Carrie Johnson were among the latest tranche of government staff members handed fixed penalty notice fines by the Metropolitan Police for breaking their own rules to stage social events at Downing Street and Whitehall during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Both the prime minister and chancellor have apologised and paid their fines, with Mr Johnson saying: “In all frankness at that time it did not occur to me that this might have been a breach of the rules. Of course, the police have found otherwise and I fully respect the outcome of their investigation.”
He said he understood “the anger that many will feel that I myself fell short when it came to observing the very rules which the government I lead had introduced to protect the public”.
But he brushed off calls for his resignation, saying: “I believe it’s my job to get on and deliver for the people of this country. That’s what I’m going to do.”
However, as the first serving PM to be found to have broken the law, he has already come under intense pressure to resign from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, from Tory backbencher Nigel Mills and from campaign groups like Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice.
While Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves added their voices to the calls to quit on Wednesday morning and reports emerge that Mr Sunak was talked out of quitting, the PM’s defenders including transport secretary Grant Shapps and Lord Frost has insisted that he is “completely mortified” by developments and keen to make amends.
Leading backbench critics of Mr Johnson such as Sir Roger Gale and Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross have, meanwhile, argued that it is “not the time” for Britain change leaders in light of the war raging in Ukraine.
The No 10 drinks parties held in the midst of England’s coronavirus lockdowns remain the subject of the Met’s ongoing investigation and Whitehall mandarin Sue Gray has still yet to deliver her full report into what went on behind closed doors.
Ms Gray did submit her long-delayed report into Partygate to the PM in January and a 12-page “update”, heavily-redacted at the request of Scotland Yard, was released, in which the civil servant blasted “failures of leadership and judgement” in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, describing the behaviour of some personnel as “difficult to justify”.
The report considered a total of 16 separate social events at the PM’s Westminster residence and other government departments that took place while Covid regulations imposed strict limits on gatherings anywhere in the UK.
In a scathing comment on the culture at No 10 under Mr Johnson’s leadership, the senior civil servant wrote: “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”.
Her report also revealed that Mr Johnson’s birthday celebration was among the dozen gatherings being investigated by detectives, as was an alleged party in the PM’s private flat.
Addressing the House of Commons in its wake, the PM said he “accepts Sue Gray’s general findings in full” and “above all her recommendation that we must learn from these events and act now”.
He said he was “sorry for the things we simply didn’t get right and also sorry for the way that this matter has been handled”.
“I get it, and I will fix it,” he added. “I want to say to the people of this country I know what the issue is. It is whether this government can be trusted to deliver, and I say ‘yes we can be trusted to deliver’.”
But during the course of his desperate bid to defend himself, Mr Johnson falsely accused his opposite number, Sir Keir, of being responsible for the failure to prosecute paedophile Jimmy Savile during his tenure as director of public prosecutions (DPP) between 2008 and 2013.
An official report at the time made clear that Sir Keir had played no part in decisions that prevented the prosecution of the prolific sex offender prior to his death in 2011 but Mr Starmer did issue an apology in his capacity as DPP on behalf of the Crown Prosecution Service.
The outcry over that smear prompted the resignation of Mr Johnson’s long-loyal adviser and director of policy Munira Mirza, who sent him a letter saying the “scurrilous” Savile jibe was an “inappropriate and partisan reference to a horrendous case of child sex abuse” and told Mr Johnson: “You have let yourself down.”
Her exit was swiftly followed by three more, as the PM’s communications chief Jack Doyle, chief of staff Dan Rosenfield and principal private secretary Martin Reynolds all likewise jumped ship – with Downing Street hurriedly briefing that their exits were all part of a pre-planned shakeup of Mr Johnson’s inner circle.
A day later, Elena Narozanski, another member of the Downing Street policy unit, became the fifth aide to join the exodus.
Having initially said in December that he was “sickened” at the prospect of Downing Street employees ignoring social restrictions at events reported to have taken place in May, November and December 2020, Mr Johnson found himself sidestepping questions about whether he too had attended an event on 20 May after an explosive leaked email provided evidence that over 100 staff were invited to attend the bash and “bring your own booze”.
No 10 stonewalled questions over that party – pointing to Ms Gray’s investigation – but anger only grew among Tory MPs and Conservative-leaning newspapers.
Finally, at Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons at high noon on Wednesday 12 January, Mr Johnson did address the issue, confirming that he had attended the garden gathering for around 25 minutes with the intention of thanking his staff for their efforts during the pandemic while claiming, somewhat improbably: “I believed implicitly that it was a work event.”
He apologised, expressed empathy for the public fury in light of the personal sacrifices millions had made and again implored his critics to await the outcome of Ms Gray’s inquiry before passing judgement.
That cut little ice with his opposition number, Sir Keir describing the PM as a “pathetic spectacle of a man who has run out of road” and “without shame”, derided his apology as “worthless” following “months of deceit and deception” and called on him to resign, the seething disdain in his voice drawing chuckles of laughter from across Parliament while members of Mr Johnson’s frontbench sat stoney-faced behind their Covid masks.
“Why does he think the rules do not apply to him?” Sir Keir asked, incredulous, voicing the thoughts of millions.
Both Mr Davey and Ian Blackford, the Scottish National Party leader in the Commons, in turn called on Mr Johnson to “do the decent thing and resign”.
Support for the embattled prime minister subsequently trickled in from Cabinet colleagues (and potential leadership challengers) like Mr Sunak, deputy PM Dominic Raab and foreign secretary Liz Truss, without a great deal of enthusiasm evident.
Soon after, news of more parties has emerged to add to the total, including two separate events on 16 April 2021, the evening before Prince Philip’s funeral when the Queen sat alone in accordance with strict Covid rules as she bade farewell to her husband of 73 years.
Both events are said to have been leaving parties for staff working in the PM’s inner team, with wild tales told of “excessive alcohol” being drunk, attendees dancing to music DJ’d by a special adviser beyond midnight and a staffer being sent out to the local branch of Co-op to fill a suitcase with bottles of wine.
As further details were leaked to the newspapers in dribs and drabs, Mr Johnson invited further exasperated ridicule when he told Sky News during a hospital visit on Tuesday 18 January: “I can’t believe we would have gone ahead with an event that people said was against the rules… Nobody warned me it was against the rules, I am categorical about that – I would have remembered that.”
After news of a sixteenth and final party, the aforementioned gathering to celebrate Mr Johnson’s birthday, emerged, the Met announced its investigation, prompting the delay of Ms Gray’s report.
Prior to those final outrageous twists in the saga, a poll found that two-thirds of the public (66 per cent) believed the PM should resign over his role in the parties.
Since then, the outbreak of Russia’s war in Ukraine has enabled Mr Johnson to rehabilitate his public image by leading the international response to Vladimir Putin’s actions, imposing harsh economic sanctions, sending weapons and aid and even visiting Kyiv to tour the city in the company of president Volodymyr Zelensky, an important show of solidarity.
Meanwhile, his most likely challenger for the Tory leadership, Mr Sunak, has endured a torrid time of it, under fire over the cost of living crisis, his own tax affairs and now his own fine over Partygate.
But only a leader as brazen and shameless as Boris Johnson could hope to survive the present outrage.
He clearly does not intend to do the decent thing and step down of his own volition, as his rivals implored, so, unless his own backbenchers do submit the long-threatened letters of no-confidence to Sir Graham Brady’s 1922 Committee in sufficient numbers, the advent of the war and the spectre of local elections on 5 May might just be enough to save his bacon once again.
A new YouGov poll has concluded that 57 per cent of the British public believes that he and Mr Sunak should resign, should he need any additional food for thought.
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