UK government holds breath as it awaits ‘partygate’ report
London – Prime Minister Boris Johnson braced Wednesday for the conclusions of an investigation into allegations of lockdown-breaching parties, a document that could help him end weeks of scandal and discontent, or bring his time in office to an abrupt close.
Senior civil servant Sue Gray is probing allegations that the prime minister and his staff flouted restrictions they imposed on the country in 2020 and 2021 to curb the spread of the coronavirus with “bring your own booze” office parties, birthday celebrations and “wine time Fridays.”
The claims have caused public anger, led some Conservative lawmakers to call for Johnson’s resignation, triggered intense infighting inside the governing party and sparked a criminal investigation into the prime minister and his staff by London’s Metropolitan Police.
Gray is believed to have finished her inquiry, but has not said when she will submit her report to the government. Expectations among lawmakers that it would come on Wednesday gradually ebbed away as the day dragged on and Parliament adjourned for the night.
Johnson has promised to publish Gray’s report in full and to address Parliament about its findings. The earliest that could come is now Thursday.
“When I receive it, of course I will do exactly what I said,” Johnson said during a testy Prime Minister’s Questions session in the House of Commons.
He batted away questions about the scandal and his future, saying he had “absolutely no intention” of resigning.
Wednesday’s headlines provided more bad news for Johnson, whose popularity in opinion polls has plunged amid the scandal. The Guardian’s front-page headline spoke of “PM’s peril,” while the left-leaning Daily Mirror said bluntly: “Number’s up, PM.” The right-of-center Daily Mail differed, declaring Britain: “A nation that has lost all sense of proportion.”
Johnson has urged his critics to wait for Gray’s conclusions, but his “wait and see” defense weakened Tuesday when police said they had opened a criminal investigation into some of the gatherings.
The Metropolitan Police said “a number of events” at Johnson’s Downing Street office and other government buildings met the force’s criteria for investigating the “most serious and flagrant” breaches of coronavirus rules.
The “partygate” allegations have infuriated many in Britain, who were barred from meeting with friends and family for months in 2020 and 2021 to curb the spread of COVID-19. Tens of thousands of people were fined by police for breaking the rules.
If detectives quiz Johnson about his involvement, it will be the first time a prime minister has been interviewed by police since Tony Blair was questioned as a witness over a “cash for honors” scandal in 2007. No one was charged in that case.
Conservative lawmaker Andrew Rosindell downplayed the extent of any wrongdoing by the prime minister.
“I’m sure there are ministers that get parking tickets and speed fines, too,” he said. “Lots of people break the law in small ways, sometimes unintentionally. He’s not robbed a bank.”
Johnson and his allies have tried, without much success, to calm a scandal that is consuming government energies that could be better spent confronting the international crisis over Russia’s military build-up near Ukraine and a far-from-finished coronavirus pandemic.
Asked if Johnson was the right person to lead Britain at a time of international crisis, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said simply: “Yes.”
Johnson has apologized for attending one event, a “bring your own booze” gathering in the garden of his Downing Street offices in May 2020, but said he had considered it a work gathering that fell within the rules.
Johnson’s supporters have also defended a June 2020 surprise birthday party for the prime minister inside Downing Street.
Loyal lawmaker Conor Burns said Johnson didn’t know about the gathering in advance.
“It was not a premeditated, organized party. … He was, in a sense, ambushed with a cake,” Burns told Channel 4 News.
In more bad news for the prime minister, Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday published evidence that suggested Johnson personally OKed the airlift from Kabul of 200 dogs and cats from an animal charity run by a former Royal Marine.
Thousands of British citizens and their Afghan allies were flown out of Kabul as the Taliban took over in August. But many other Afghans at risk were left behind, and the animal airlift was accused of diverting time and resources from rescuing people.
Johnson has called claims that he intervened “nonsense.” But emails leaked by a former Foreign Office staffer involved in the evacuation effort said the “PM has just authorized … staff and animals to be evacuated.”
Johnson’s office said Wednesday that Johnson “didn’t instruct officials to take any particular course of action.”
Associated Press Writer Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.