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'A serious failure': Boris Johnson sharply criticized over Covid lockdown parties

The British prime minister's grip on power has been weakened by allegations that he and his staff flouted restrictions they had imposed on the country.
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LONDON — Parties held by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his staff during Covid-19 lockdown were a “serious failure” of the standards of public office and “difficult to justify,” a highly anticipated government report said Monday.

Johnson commissioned the report amid widespread fury over a number of parties alleged to have been held while the U.K. was under strict coronavirus restrictions.

Johnson, who has been fighting to save his leadership from the scandal, apologized this month for attending a “bring your own booze” party in the garden of his No. 10 Downing St. residence and office.

Senior civil servant Sue Gray handed Johnson an “update” of her findings, which was later published online. She found more than a dozen social gatherings and sharply faulted the country’s leadership.

“At least 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,” the interim report said.

“A number of these gatherings should not have been allowed to take place or to develop in the way that they did,” it added. It also called for a crackdown on the “excessive consumption of alcohol” in Downing Street, which it said was “not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time.”

Gray said that 12 of the 16 parties she looked into are being investigated by London’s Metropolitan Police and that she would not be able to hand over her full report until the investigation was complete.

The Met, which has been criticized for not investigating the parties earlier, said Monday that its bundle of evidence for the case includes more than 500 pages and 300 photographs. It said in a statement that if it finds that rules were breached, it could hand out fines to those involved.

Later Monday, Johnson offered an apology to a raucous House of Commons, having tried to deny in December that the parties had happened, and then suggested that staff members were to blame. But he still urged his critics to wait for the full conclusions of Gray and the police.

“Firstly, I want to say sorry. Sorry for the things we didn’t get right,” he said.

He said that in light of the report he would be making “changes” to the way Downing Street and the Cabinet Office are run.

“I get it, and I will fix it,” he told lawmakers.

Johnson repeatedly sidestepped questions from lawmakers asking whether his government would publish the report in full when it arrives.

Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said in response that Johnson was “a man without shame” and repeated his call for the prime minister to resign.

Parliament is usually a rowdy place, but Johnson’s Conservative lawmakers listened to their chief opponent’s speech in silence.

Starmer spoke of members of the public who felt “guilt because they stuck to the law [and] they did not see their parents one last time” during lockdown while their own government did not. He said that their sacrifice would be “forever tainted” by Johnson’s government and that they “took us all for fools.“

It was not just on the opposition benches that Johnson heard rancor. The rolling “partygate” revelations have stirred rebellion among his own lawmakers, leading to speculation that he may be about to face a vote of no confidence.

Former Prime Minister Theresa May, Johnson’s Conservative predecessor, said that either he “had not read the rules or didn’t understand” them or he “didn’t think the rules applied” to him.

“Which was it?” she asked.

Johnson’s grip on power has been weakened by allegations that he and his staff flouted restrictions they imposed on the country in 2020 and 2021 to curb the spread of the coronavirus by holding office parties, birthday celebrations and “wine time Fridays.”

The claims have caused public anger, led some Conservative lawmakers to call for Johnson’s resignation and triggered intense infighting inside the governing party.

The full report’s publication, which was expected last week, was thrown into doubt, however, when the police force launched its investigation into the most serious allegations of breaches of coronavirus rules.

The force said it had asked that Gray’s report make only “minimal reference” to the events detectives are investigating “to avoid any prejudice to our investigation.”

Johnson’s opponents accused the government of trying to water down a report that could trigger an attempt to oust him by his own party. Some Conservative lawmakers have said they would push for a no-confidence vote if Gray found that Johnson was at fault or that he lied to Parliament about his actions.

Johnson’s office did not respond to a request for comment.