LONDON — U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s position is looking increasingly vulnerable as more reports emerge of parties and gatherings in Downing Street during periods of Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions.
Kier Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, accused Johnson of breaking Covid laws amid numerous allegations of parties and gatherings that were held by government staff, with some attended by Johnson, during lockdown.
In the last few days more reports of parties have emerged, with Downing Street apologizing to Queen Elizabeth after it has emerged that two parties took place on the eve of Prince Phillip’s funeral in April 2021, in which it’s alleged that a staff member was sent out to buy a “suitcase of wine.”
Speaking to the BBC on Sunday, Starmer said Johnson had “lied” about what he called “industrial scale partying” in Downing Street.
“The facts speak for themselves, and the country has made up its mind,” he said, adding it was “blindingly obvious what’s happened.”
“I think he broke the law, I think he’s as good as admitted that he broke the law,” he told the BBC.
Johnson admitted to Parliament last week that he had attended a drinks party at Downing Street, the prime minister’s office and which he lives next door to, during the U.K.’s first Covid lockdown in May 2020 but said he believed it was a “work event.”
Johnson has said that another picture showing him and his wife, as well as 17 Downing Street staff members, drinking wine and eating cheese in No.10’s garden at a separate event in May 2020 showed “people at work.”
A number of lawmakers within Johnson’s Conservative Party have called on the prime minister to resign, saying his position is now untenable as public anger has grown as more reports of parties being held in government buildings have emerged. Others have questioned Johnson’s judgment and the work culture in Downing Street.
Johnson’s closest minister in his Cabinet have remained loyal for now, saying that they will await the conclusions of an investigation being carried out by a senior civil servant, Sue Gray, into whether parties and gatherings took place in various government buildings and broke Covid rules.
The results of that inquiry could be released later this week. Sky News has published a list of the alleged parties here.
Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden reiterated that position on Sunday, commenting to the BBC that “the task for us now is how we address the underlying culture in Downing Street” and that “we need to up our game, and that needs to be addressed, and I know the prime minister is committed to addressing that.”
What Johnson has said
Showing how far the “partygate” scandal reaches, the U.K.’s most senior civil servant who was meant to investigate the alleged parties, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, was forced to quit the investigation himself after it was revealed that a gathering was held in his own private office in December 2020, also breaking rules in place at the time.
Last week, Johnson admitted that he had attended a party billed as a “bring your own booze” gathering in Downing Street’s garden, to which around 100 people were reportedly invited, in May 20, 2020, during the U.K.’s first Covid lockdown.
At this time, people in the U.K. were only allowed to meet one other person from outside their household, and had to meet outdoors, among other strict rules.
Addressing a packed House of Commons (the lower House of Parliament) last week, Johnson offered his “heartfelt apologies” to the nation but defended himself, saying he had only attended the party for 25 minutes in order to “thank groups of staff” for their hard work and that he “believed implicitly that this was a work event.”
Addressing Parliament after Johnson’s admission, opposition leader Starmer said Johnson’s explanation for his attendance was “so ridiculous that it’s actually offensive to the British public” as he called on Johnson “to do the decent thing and resign.”
Party ending for Johnson?
While the British media has doggedly sought to expose more details of parties, with details and photos of a number of them being leaked to the press, the British public has become increasingly angry as the gatherings took place invariably at times when people were not meant to socialize.
People who lost loved-ones during the pandemic have expressed outrage at the reports of parties, feeling they were robbed of precious moments with family while politicians flouted the rules.
Johnson has shown no signs, as yet, that he is considering his position in office, however. He has been out of the public eye in recent days due to a positive Covid test among his close family.
Whether more powerful members of his Cabinet move against Johnson in the coming days and mount a leadership challenge is now being closely watched but most Tory politicians have said they are awaiting the results of Sue Gray’s much-anticipated inquiry, for now.
How public anger plays out in local elections in the U.K. in May could well determine whether the Conservative Party moves against Johnson, if he does not resign.
Johnson and his government have also weathered political storms before and have garnered some credit for “getting Brexit done.” But Tory lawmakers will now be assessing whether they believe Johnson can win a future election, however, given low public trust in him.
Ruth Gregory, senior U.K. economist at Capital Economics, noted last Friday that “it is striking how quickly the political momentum has shifted” with Johnson likely to have gone from a position of “feeling smug about his decision not to ramp up the Covid-19 restrictions in the wake of the Omicron wave” to facing what she called “the most difficult days of his political career, with speculation rising that a leadership challenge is imminent.”
“With questions remaining over the parties in 10 Downing Street during Covid-19 lockdowns, the coming days, if not weeks, are likely to be marked by more political turmoil,” she noted, with two “flashpoints” ahead:
“First, the publication … of the report investigating whether the PM broke Covid-19 lockdown rules at parties in Downing Street. Second, the resignation of any Cabinet members. Regardless of what happens, we doubt this period of political instability will stall the economic recovery in the near term. The economy has performed well when uncertainty has been elevated in the past, including after the 2010 hung Parliament.”
Sterling has certainly seemed unmoved by political upheavals, remaining buoyant last week against the dollar, and is up 0.2% against the greenback year to date. On Monday morning, a pound was worth $1.3675.