LONDON — The interim findings of an investigation into Covid-19 lockdown-breaking parties at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office and residence have sharply criticized the culture in Downing Street.
The 12-page interim report, published in a redacted form on the government’s website on Monday, makes clear that lockdown parties “should not have been allowed to take place,” while others “should not have been allowed to develop as they did.”
In a series of damning conclusions, senior civil servant Sue Gray’s partial findings said there were “failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times” and some of the behavior was “difficult to justify.”
It also found that the excessive consumption of alcohol was “not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time” and some staff had wanted to raise concerns about behaviors they witnessed but felt unable to do so.
“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 report said.
Gray said it had not been possible to provide a meaningful report after the Metropolitan Police had controversially asked her to make “minimal reference” to parties they are also investigating.
The Met’s move provoked a backlash from British lawmakers who accused the police of attempting to affect the political process and to “whitewash” the report.
After multiple reports of various gatherings and alleged parties in government buildings, the latest disclosure in recent weeks was that an event was held during lockdown to celebrate Johnson’s birthday on June 19, 2020.
Johnson has so far resisted calls to resign from across the political spectrum, despite public anger over the long and growing list of alleged lockdown breaches.
In response to Gray’s interim report, Johnson told lawmakers gathered in the House of Commons that he was sorry for the way the matter had been handled and accepted it was time to review codes of conduct.
“Firstly, I want to say sorry,” Johnson said Monday afternoon. “I’m sorry for the things we simply didn’t get right and also sorry for the way that this matter has been handled.”
Johnson conceded it wasn’t enough to say sorry and said he will create an Office of the Prime Minister, with a permanent secretary.
“I get it and I will fix it,” Johnson said, prompting a chorus of jeers from opposition lawmakers.
Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer said that “by routinely breaking the rules he set, the prime minister took us all for fools.”
“He gleefully 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 Party lawmakers in a meeting later this evening.
What happens next?
Many lawmakers who had remained loyal to Johnson, his closest colleagues among them, had repeatedly said that they would “await the findings” of Sue Gray’s report before casting judgment on their leader.
The oft-repeated phrase trotted out by Conservative politicians has allowed the prime minister to buy some time to lobby lawmakers for support in a bid to stave off a vote of no confidence — which is triggered if 54 Tory MPs send letters of no confidence to the chairman of the 1922 Committee, an influential group of backbench lawmakers which oversees leadership challenges.
It’s unknown how many letters have been sent to the 1922’s Chairman Graham Brady as the letters are kept secret, although a number of politicians have publicly declared they no longer have faith in Johnson’s leadership.
It will now be closely watched if the requisite 54 letters are declared by Brady in the wake of the publication of Gray’s findings. If enough letters of no confidence are received then a confidence vote would be triggered.
If a majority of Tory MPs voted to support Johnson in the vote, no new vote can be called for another 12 months, according to the current rules, although the 1922 Committee is reportedly considering whether to change that rule to allow for two votes per year.
If Johnson lost the vote, he would be forced to step down and a Conservative leadership contest would begin. In that eventuality, Johnson, as an ousted leader, would not be allowed to stand.
Of course, another alternative would be for Johnson to resign of his own accord but he shows no signs of intending to do so.
Some lawmakers might prefer to wait and see how the Conservative Party fares in May local elections, which will allow them to gauge public anger over “partygate.” Opinion polls have already shown that trust and approval in Johnson and his government has fallen, however.
Johnson’s leadership has been under immense pressure after weeks of media reports (going back before Christmas) of multiple parties and gatherings attended by government staff, including Johnson at times.
One gathering, in particular, has snared Johnson as it was held in May 2020 at the height of the first lockdown, when the general public was only allowed to meet one other person from outside of their household, in an outdoor setting.
Johnson admitted to Parliament earlier in January that he attended the party — billed as a “bring your own booze” gathering in Downing Street’s garden to which around 100 people were reportedly invited.
But he told lawmakers that 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,” a comment lampooned by opposition politicians.
The opposition Labour Party has been scathing about Johnson’s leadership and his comments on his attendance at the May 2020 party, calling on the prime minister to resign.
When Johnson offered his “heartfelt apologies” to the nation about attending the event, Labour 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.”