UK's Johnson apologizes for rules flouting as new limits loom
Boris Johnson apologized after a video emerged showing key aides joking about a Downing Street Christmas party in possible breach of Covid-19 rules last year -- just as his government readies more restrictions.
Amid a growing public outcry, the Labour Party accused the prime minister of taking people for fools over last year’s reported event, which the government has repeatedly refused to confirm while also saying no rules were broken.
Meanwhile the Financial Times reported ministers are set to issue an order to work from home as soon as Wednesday night and to mandate the use of so-called vaccine passports inside large venues -- moves likely to trigger further anger among members of Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party.
After a chaotic few weeks for his government, Johnson is yet again on the defensive about the administration’s loose grip on the pandemic just as the latest omicron variant is unsettling markets. The yield on 10-year benchmark U.K. bonds fell to a three-month low on reports on the new pandemic rules, while money markets pared wagers on Bank of England rate hikes.
When asked about further restrictions -- which have divided his top ministers -- during a turbulent session in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Johnson said no decisions will be made without the cabinet.
The prime minister opened his weekly question-and-answer session with an acknowledgment of the anger sparked by the video of his aides.
“I can understand how infuriating it must be to think that the people who have been setting the rules have not been following the rules,” Johnson toldParliament. “I apologize unreservedly for the offense it has caused up and down the country and I apologize for the impression that it gives.”
A slew of Tory MPs said Wednesday that the fallout from the video, which was leaked to broadcaster ITV, threatens the party’s prospects in a parliamentary election next week. They also warned it’s likely to reduce public compliance with pandemic restrictions.
The episode casts further doubt over the integrity of Johnson’s administration after a turbulent period even by his standards, including the prime minister’s botched handling of an ethics probe into a Conservative MP that ignited anger among rank-and-file Tories. The party has slumped in recent opinion polls, while Johnson’s own popularity fell to its lowest level in November.
In a sign of the disarray within government, Health Secretary Sajid Javid cancelled a round of broadcast interviews that had been planned for Wednesday morning. He would likely have faced hostile questions about the alleged party last year, rather than about the country’s much-hailed vaccination program, which began exactly a year ago.
Ahead of Johnson’s statement, one minister told Bloomberg the Conservative Party is demoralized, while a former minister said they are fed up with issues like this detracting from the business of running the country.
“The buck actually stops at the top,” Tory MP Roger Gale told BBC radio on Wednesday.
The latest backlash started to build last week, when the Daily Mirror newspaper reported that about 40 to 50 people partied at Johnson’s official office at 10 Downing Street “cheek by jowl” on Dec. 18 last year.
Johnson and his ministers repeatedly said no rules were broken, but events escalated dramatically when the video of his aides aired. It shows Johnson’s then press secretary, Allegra Stratton, four days after the alleged party took place, rehearsing for a TV media briefing and saying there was “definitely no social distancing,” when asked about a party.
The fallout was swift, and even the Tory-supporting Daily Mail ran the story on its front page on Wednesday, under the headline “A Sick Joke.”
On Wednesday, Johnson told MPs he’s asked Cabinet Secretary Simon Case to “establish the facts,” adding that: “It goes without saying that if those rules were broken, then there will be disciplinary action for all those involved.” He also said the government would comply with any police investigation.
Johnson’s press secretary also told reporters the prime minister had been “working all evening” on the date of the reported party.
The mood of Johnson’s Conservative Party will concern him, especially ahead of a potentially tricky special election in North Shropshire next week.
That’s the historically safe Tory seat vacated by Owen Paterson, a former cabinet minister who quit after being found guilty of breaking lobbying rules. It was Johnson’s failed attempt to protect him that triggered much of the recent Tory unrest at his leadership.
Asked if they are worried about the impact of the Christmas party on the vote, one former minister said the “Tories look like a shower of shits.”
The saga has echoes of the so-called Barnard Castle controversy of 2020, when Johnson’s then chief aide, Dominic Cummings, broke lockdown rules and triggered weeks of negative media coverage and cries of hypocrisy.
Its timing is also especially sensitive for Johnson, who faced widespread criticism last year when he re-imposed pandemic restrictions at the last minute, preventing many families from meeting over Christmas.
Though a potential move to so-called Plan B measures fall far short of the lockdown imposed last year, any tightening of restrictions is likely to raise fears about the government’s direction of travel.
Fabrice Montagne, the chief U.K. economist at Barclays Plc., said the reported restrictions are “set to drag confidence lower.”
Meanwhile influential Tory MP Charles Walker warned the government would find it difficult to impose any new rules, given the furor over the video.
“The Number 10 party means that any future lockdowns will be advisory, whatever the law says,” he told the BBC late Tuesday. “People if required in law not to meet friends and relatives will say, ‘Look it didn’t happen last year at Number 10 Downing Street and it’s not going to happen this year then at Number 10 Acacia Avenue’.”
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