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U.K. Covid 'partygate' report blames culture of Boris Johnson’s office

Revelations that Johnson and his staff repeatedly flouted the rules they imposed on others have elicited outrage in Britain and led to calls for the prime minister to resign.
/ Source: Associated Press

LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other senior officials bear responsibility for a culture of rule-breaking that resulted in several parties that breached the U.K.’s Covid-19 lockdown rules, a report into the events said Wednesday.

Revelations that Johnson and his staff repeatedly flouted the rules they imposed on others have elicited outrage in Britain and led to calls from opponents for the prime minister to resign.

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 the U.K. were barred from socializing, or even from visiting sick and dying relatives, because of coronavirus restrictions.

Gray said there had been “failures of leadership and judgment in No. 10,” a reference to the address of the prime minister’s office.

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

Critics, some of them inside Johnson’s Conservative 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 member’s 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 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.”

Much of Gray’s 37-page report was 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.

“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 on 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 getting 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 just over two years ago. Under party rules, such a vote is triggered if 15% of party lawmakers — currently 54 people — 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.