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Johnson under fire from Tories after ‘Partygate’ report

Johnson under fire from Tories after ‘Partygate’ report

4 min. 01.02.2022 From our online archive
London’s Metropolitan Police is now investigating 12 lockdown gatherings in government buildings, including in Johnson’s own flat
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking to MPs to update them on the situation in Ukraine, in the House of Commons on 25 January 2022
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking to MPs to update them on the situation in Ukraine, in the House of Commons on 25 January 2022
Photo credit: AFP

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced fresh fury from his own Conservative lawmakers after a report into partying in Downing Street during lockdown slammed “failures of leadership and judgment” at the top of his government and criticised “excessive” drinking. 

London’s Metropolitan Police is now investigating 12 lockdown gatherings in government buildings, including in Johnson’s own apartment, and said Monday it was reviewing “more than 300 images and over 500 pages of information.”

In her 12-page interim report, senior civil servant Sue Gray said “too little thought” was given to the conditions faced by people across the UK under strict Covid-19 restrictions, and that some events “should not have been allowed to take place.”

“I get it, and I will fix it,” Johnson told Parliament in a session that lasted nearly two hours. He vowed an overhaul of the way his office is run, apologised “for the things we simply didn’t get right” and said it was time to “look ourselves in the mirror and learn.”

Later he appealed for calm from Conservative members of Parliament at a packed private meeting, pledging to bring back election strategist Lynton Crosby for regular strategic advice to get his government back on track.

The prime minister is trying to draw a line under the stream of negative headlines that have accompanied the drip-drip of allegations, dubbed “Partygate” by the UK media. They have undermined his leadership and led to plunging poll ratings for his party. 

Losing Support

But the scale of the police probe and the damning findings of Gray’s partial report highlight how he is far from off the hook. While Johnson batted away frequent opposition calls for his resignation, of more concern to the prime minister will be the obvious displeasure across a swath of his own party, with many Tories left unconvinced he can turn his fortunes around.

“I have to tell him he no longer enjoys my support,” former cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell said in the House of Commons. 

Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, said bluntly that either the prime minister “had not read the rules or didn’t understand what they meant” or he “didn’t think the rules applied to Number 10.” Other Tory MPs including Caroline Nokes, Steve Baker and Aaron Bell made clear their anger and frustration with the premier and the culture in his government.

Conservative MP Angela Richardson wrote on Facebook that she had resigned as aide to cabinet minister Michael Gove, citing her “deep disappointment” at the government’s handling of the matter.

The outcome of the police probe - which is likely to take weeks or even months - will prove a moment of extreme danger for Johnson, as many Tory lawmakers are waiting for its findings before deciding whether to topple their leader. It takes 15% of Tory MPs - or 54 in total - to trigger a no-confidence vote.

Apartment Gathering

One key event being examined by police is a gathering in Johnson’s Downing Street apartment on 13 November 2020, the night that his former top aide, Dominic Cummings, left Number 10. Several Labour MPs stood up in Parliament to ask the premier outright whether he attended a party in his flat that night, but he declined to comment.

Johnson also declined to answer multiple questions, including from his own Conservative MPs, on whether Gray’s report would be published in full after the police had finished their investigation. But his office later released a statement to say Johnson would publish an update from Gray after the police had concluded their probe.

Gray’s investigation was thrown into disarray when the police launched their own investigation last week after she passed them key information. The police then asked her to only make “minimal reference” to the gatherings it was looking into - the most damaging allegations.

In her interim findings, Gray stressed she was unable to provide a “meaningful report” outlining the “extensive factual information I have been able to gather.” 

But she also said: “Against the backdrop of the pandemic, when the government was asking citizens to accept far-reaching restrictions on their lives, some of the behaviour surrounding these gatherings is difficult to justify.”

Gray pointed to “failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of Number 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times,” and criticised the “excessive consumption of alcohol” in government buildings.

She said some staff had wanted to raise concerns about behaviour at work “but at times felt unable to do so” and also warned there were too many people working in Johnson’s Downing Street office.

“There is significant learning to be drawn from these events which must be addressed immediately across government,” Gray concluded. “This does not need to wait for the police investigations to be concluded.”

Johnson pledged to make changes to the way Downing Street and the Cabinet Office were run, including by creating an “office of the prime minister” with a permanent secretary to lead Number 10.

He also vowed to say more in the coming days on “improving the operations of Number 10,” hinting at potential staffing changes.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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