U.K. leader Boris Johnson faces calls to resign over "bring your own booze" garden party during COVID lockdown
Wednesday brought the time-honored tradition of "Prime Minister's Question Time" in the British Parliament, when the U.K. Prime Minister stands before his fellow elected lawmakers to answer their questions. It's weekly political theater that normally generates a few headlines, but this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced the most serious questions of his time in office.
Earlier this week, U.K. news outlets got hold of an email that Johnson's right-hand man sent in May 2020, inviting around 100 people to the PM's official residence, Number 10 Downing Street, for a "bring your own booze" gathering. At the time, Britons were under strict coronavirus lockdown measures that made any such gatherings illegal.
"I want to apologize," began the prime minister on Wednesday, acknowledging the "rage" Britons felt with him and his government.
"There were things I did not get right," he said. But he insisted that No. 10's back yard was "an extension of the office," and that when he went into the garden on the evening in question, for what he said was 25 minutes "to thank staff," he "believed implicitly that this was a work event."
"With hindsight," Johnson said, "I should have sent everyone back inside."
The rules in England were clear enough during that lockdown: No indoor mixing of households whatsoever, and outdoors, people were permitted to meet only one member of another household, provided social distancing was maintained. The invitation from Johnson's Principal Private Secretary Martin Reynolds to as many as 100 people, which has been seen by the BBC and other major U.K. news outlets, did say the outdoor gathering would be socially distanced, but clearly more than two people from two different households were expected.
In admitting attendance, Johnson all but confirmed that he was among the roughly two dozen people who broke the government's own, legally binding rules, while the rest of the country was prohibited from even visiting family members in hospitals or attending funerals for loved ones killed by COVID-19. Johnson insisted that was not the case, as in his mind it was a work meeting. There was nothing in the U.K. government's rules, however, permitting such gatherings, regardless of their purpose.
Opposition Leader Kier Starmer was among the many politicians who refused to accept Johnson's apology on Wednesday.
"The pathetic defense that he 'didn't realize he was at a party,'" fumed Starmer, was "so ridiculous that it is actually offensive to the British public."
"Is he now going to do the decent thing and resign?" asked Starmer, calling Johnson a "man without shame."
Until Wednesday afternoon, Johnson had refused to comment on the allegations, saying with a trademark smirk that he couldn't possibly remark because the "work event" in his own backyard was under formal investigation, along with other gatherings allegedly held in violation of lockdown rules by his staff.
Calls for Johnson's resignation grew louder from the opposition benches of Parliament even before Question Time, and Johnson's fellow Conservative lawmakers were increasingly making it clear that if the allegations were confirmed, the prime minister's position would likely be untenable.
If you feel like you've already heard this story, that's because Johnson has already had to defend his government from allegations that he and senior aides broke their own rules — at least twice.
First it emerged that in March 2020, Johnson's senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, drove for hours with his wife and kids to visit family in Northern England and visited a tourist hotspot in the region in violation of lockdown rules. Despite an uproar, Johnson declined to sack Cummings, who then quit.
Then, in December 2021, it came out that senior No. 10 Downing Street staffers had held a "business meeting" that seemed to be more of a Christmas party a year earlier — again, during lockdown.
Nobody was fired for that transgression either and Johnson, insisting that he was unaware of the gathering (which took place in his house and which he reportedly attended), told Parliament that he understood "how infuriating it would be to think that the people who have been setting the rules have not been following the rules."
He, too, was "furious," he ensured the frustrated nation.
But when asked earlier this week about the invite to a boozy garden soiree that he himself has now acknowledged attending, the prime minister appeared anything but furious. His smiling refusals to comment did not go down well.
Opposition parties were demanding his resignation before the Wednesday parliamentary session kicked off, and a growing chorus of the PM's Conservative party allies had made it clear that confirmation of the claims would be impossible for Johnson to defend.
"How do you defend the indefensible? You can't!" Conservative Parliamentarian Christian Wakeford said in a tweet. "It's embarrassing and what's worse is it further erodes trust in politics when it's already low."
"Listening to colleagues across the house, there is horror — people are horrified at what appears to have happened," Baroness Altmann, a former Conservative government minister and lifetime member of the House of Lords, told the BBC's Newsnight program on Tuesday. "What seems to have happened is utterly indefensible, and we cannot have a country where the leadership believes it can make rules for others and break them itself."
It wasn't immediately clear if Johnson had managed on Wednesday to convince Parliament, and most importantly, enough of his own party members, that what "appears to have happened" did, in fact, not happen, and the pressure on him to resign was certain to keep growing.
Douglas Ross, the leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland, wasted little time in stepping up to declare Johnson's apology insufficient.
"Regrettably, I have to say his position is no longer tenable," Ross said, becoming the most senior party member to call for Johnson's resignation. "I spoke to the prime minister this afternoon and I set out my reasons and I explained to him my position."
Under U.K. law, if he does eventually decide to bow out, Johnson's Conservative party — based on its victory in the last national elections — would pick a new leader internally to assume the premiership. There would be demands from opposition lawmakers, however, for the government to call a new election, to let the nation's voters issue their own verdict.
One thing was clear after Prime Minister's Questions: Johnson wasn't yet ready to give up.
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