Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologized Wednesday for attending a garden party during Britain’s first coronavirus lockdown, but brushed aside opposition demands that he resign for breaching the rules his own government had imposed on the nation.
The apology, which stopped short of admitting wrongdoing, was Johnson‘s attempt to assuage a tide of anger from the public and politicians after repeated accusations he and his staff flouted pandemic restrictions by socializing when it was banned.
The most recent scandal could become a tipping point for a leader who has weathered a series of other storms, with some members of Johnson’s Conservative Party saying he must quit if he broke the rules.
Trying to calm the furor, Johnson acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that he went to a May 2020 garden party at his Downing Street office, though he said that he had considered it a work event to thank staff for their efforts during the pandemic.
“I want to apologize. … With hindsight, I should have sent everyone back inside,” Johnson told lawmakers during the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions session in the House of Commons.
An invitation to “bring your own booze” to a “socially distanced drinks” gathering was emailed to about 100 government staff by a senior prime ministerial aide – though Johnson’s office says he did not receive it.
Opponents and allies alike have been demanding Johnson come clean about the party, held when Britons were barred by law from meeting more than one person outside their households to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The gathering happened as millions were cut off from family and friends, and even barred from visiting dying relatives in hospitals.
Johnson said he understood the rage of people who “have made extraordinary sacrifices over the past 18 months … at the thought that people in Downing Street were not following those rules” – though he didn’t explicitly admit that he had broken any rules.
Johnson has previously said he and his staff followed the rules at all times.
He urged people to await the conclusions of an investigation by senior civil servant Sue Gray into several alleged parties by government staff. He said Gray would deliver “the full facts” in her report, expected by the end of the month.
‘Lying through his teeth’
Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said the British public thought Johnson was “lying through his teeth.”
“His defense … that he didn’t realize he was at a party is so ridiculous that it’s actually offensive to the British public,” Starmer said. “He’s finally been forced to admit what everyone knew, that when the whole country was locked down he was hosting boozy parties in Downing Street. Is he now going to do the decent thing and resign?”
Johnson did not resign, and Wednesday’s apology buys him some time to regain control. But his fate is now in the hands of Gray, a veteran civil servant with a reputation as a straight-shooter.
The scandal dubbed “partygate” adds to a mounting list of troubles for Johnson, who already faced accusations that his Conservative government flouted pandemic rules at other times, by hosting garden gatherings, Christmas get-togethers and office quiz nights in Downing Street, which is both the prime minister’s home and his office. He is also facing disquiet after allegations of financial and ethical misconduct against him and his government.
In Parliament on Wednesday, a string of opposition lawmakers accused Johnson of lawbreaking, lying and debasing his office.
Labour lawmaker Chris Bryant said Johnson’s claim that he did not realize he was at a party was not believable.
“How stupid does the prime minister think the British people are?” Bryant asked.
Johnson can shrug off opposition criticisms — as he has during previous scandals — since his Conservatives have an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons. More worryingly for the prime minister, many members of his own party are increasingly concerned about his judgment and leadership.
The Conservatives picked Johnson as leader in 2019 for his upbeat manner and popular touch, despite the serial allegations of rule-bending and dishonesty that have followed him through his twin careers as journalist and politician. The choice appeared vindicated when he led the party to a big election win in December that year.
But support inside the party is being eroded by discontent over continuing pandemic restrictions, which some Conservatives view as draconian, and the growing list scandals. The question now is whether “partygate” might be a scandal too far.
The Conservatives have a history of ousting leaders if they become a liability — and a recent surprising loss in a special election for a district the party held for more than a century has increased their jitters.
Veteran Conservative legislator Christopher Chope said Johnson’s apology had helped reassure the party.
“I think this apology has bought some time, and we will see what happens,” he said.
But another senior Conservative lawmaker, Roger Gale, said Johnson had “misled the House” with previous denials of partygoing.
“Politically the prime minister is a dead man walking,” he said.