Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to make a statement at Parliament on January 31, 2022 in London, England.
Dan Kitwood | News from Getty Images | Getty Images
LONDON – The preliminary findings of an inquiry into Covid-19 lockdown parties at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office and home have sharply criticized Downing Street culture.
The 12-page interim report, released in redacted form on the government website on Monday, makes clear that lockdown parties “should not have happened” while others “should not have unfolded as they did”.
In a series of damning conclusions, senior official Sue Gray’s partial findings said there were “faults in leadership and judgment by various parts of No. 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times” and some of the behavior was “difficult to justify.”
It also noted that excessive consumption of alcohol was “at no time appropriate in a professional workplace” and some employees wanted to raise concerns about behaviors they observed but felt unable to do so.
“At least some of the assemblies in question represent a serious failure to live up not only to the high standards expected of those who work at the heart of government, but also to the standards that were expected at that time from the whole of the British public,” says the report.
Gray said it was unable to produce a meaningful report after the Metropolitan Police controversially asked them to provide “minimal clues” about parties they are also investigating.
The Met’s move provoked a backlash from British lawmakers, who accused the police of trying to influence the political process and “whitewashing” the report.
After multiple reports of various gatherings and alleged parties at government buildings, the latest revelation in recent weeks has been that an event was being held during the lockdown to celebrate Johnson’s birthday on June 19, 2020.
Johnson so far resisted demands for his resignation from across the political spectrum, despite public anger over the long and growing list of alleged lockdown violations.
In response to Gray’s interim report, Johnson told lawmakers assembled in the House of Commons that he regretted the way the matter had been handled and accepted that it was time to review the codes of conduct.
“First, I want to apologize,” Johnson said on Monday afternoon. “I’m sorry for the things we just didn’t do right and also for the way this matter was handled.”
Acknowledging that apologizing is not enough, Johnson said he would set up a prime minister’s office with a permanent secretary.
“I understand it and I will fix it,” Johnson said, prompting a chorus of jeers from opposition lawmakers.
Opposition Labor leader Keir Starmer said that “the Prime Minister thought we were all fools by routinely breaking the rules he had laid down”.
“He cheerfully treats what should be a mark of shame as a welcome shield,” Starmer added, noting that Gray’s report shows there are 12 cases that have reached the threshold for a criminal investigation.
The Prime Minister is expected to address all Conservative MPs at a meeting tonight.
Many lawmakers loyal to Johnson, including his closest colleagues, had repeatedly said they would “wait for the results” of Sue Gray’s report before passing judgment on their leader.
Conservative politicians’ oft-repeated phrase has allowed the Prime Minister to buy some time to campaign for support from lawmakers to stave off a no-confidence vote – which will be triggered when 54 Tory MPs send letters of no-confidence to the chairman of the 1922 Committee, one influential group of backbenchers addressing leadership challenges.
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It is not known how many letters were sent to the 1922 leader, Graham Brady, as the letters are kept secret, although a number of politicians have publicly stated that they no longer have confidence in Johnson’s leadership.
It will now be closely observed whether the required 54 letters from Brady will be declared after Gray’s results are published. If enough no-confidence letters are received, a vote of confidence would be triggered.
If a majority of Tory MPs voted to support Johnson in the vote, current rules mean that no new vote can be called for another 12 months, although the 1922 Committee is reportedly considering changing that rule to include two votes allow per year.
Should Johnson lose the vote, he would be forced to resign and a Conservative leadership contest would begin. In that case, Johnson would not be admitted as a deposed leader.
Of course, another alternative would be for Johnson to resign of his own accord, but he shows no sign of intending to do so.
Some lawmakers may prefer to wait and see how the Conservative Party fares in local elections in May, allowing them to gauge public anger at Partygate. However, opinion polls have already shown that trust and support for Johnson and his administration have fallen.
Johnson’s leadership was under immense pressure after weeks of media reports (dating back before Christmas) of several parties and gatherings attended by government employees, including at times Johnson.
One gathering in particular captured Johnson when it took place in May 2020, at the height of the first lockdown, when the general public was only allowed to meet one other person from outside their household outdoors.
Johnson admitted before Parliament in early January that he had attended the party – dubbed the ‘bring your own boek’ gathering in Downing Street’s garden, to which around 100 people were reportedly invited.
But he told lawmakers he only attended the party for 25 minutes to thank “groups of staff” for their hard work and that he “implicitly believed this was a work event,” a comment made by opposition politicians was mocked.
The opposition Labor Party was scathing at Johnson’s leadership and his comments on his participation in the party in May 2020, calling for the Prime Minister to resign.
As Johnson offered the nation his “sincere apologies” for attending the event, Labor leader Starmer said Johnson’s explanation for his attendance was “so ridiculous that it is actually offensive to the British public” as he urged Johnson to ” do the right thing and resign.”