A “humbled” Boris Johnson said he took full responsibility but would not quit after a damning official report on Wednesday detailed a series of illegal lockdown parties at the British leader’s Downing Street office.
Johnson has faced repeated calls to resign from opposition politicians and some in his own party over the alcohol-fuelled gatherings, after it was revealed that he and officials had broken Covid-19 rules that all but banned people from socialising outside their households.
“I … am humbled and I have learned a lesson,” Prime Minister Johnson told parliament, saying he would not quit over the scandal.
His foreign minister Liz Truss, seen as a possible successor, said she backed him “100%” after his apology.
The report by senior official Sue Gray did not specifically blame Johnson, but gave graphic details and included photographs from more than a dozen gatherings.
He attended some, including a party to celebrate his 56th birthday on June 19, 2020 that he was fined over but which Gray said he was unaware of in advance.
“Many of these events should not have been allowed to happen,” the report said. “The senior leadership …must bear responsibility for this culture.”
Johnson, who commissioned the report after revelations of boozy Downing Street events, said he was appalled by some of the behaviour it had uncovered.
Gray’s interim findings were published in January, but details were withheld until the end of a police inquiry that concluded last week with 126 fines handed out.
Dismaying behaviour at ‘heart of government’
Her full report included emails and messages that showed many gatherings were planned in advance, with discussions on who would bring alcohol – drinks that “we we seem to have got away with”, the then head of Johnson’s Downing Street office, Martin Reynolds, said in one message.
There were warnings from another official that people should not be “waving bottles of wine” before a gathering that coincided with a televised news conference when ministers told the public to follow the COVID rules.
At one June 2020 event, Gray said “excessive alcohol consumption” led to one person being sick and a fight between two others.
At another, the night before the April 2021 funeral for Queen Elizabeth’s husband Prince Philip, individuals partied into the early hours and damaged a swing.
“Many will be dismayed that behaviour of this kind took place on this scale at the heart of government,” Gray said. “The public have a right to expect the very highest standards of behaviour in such places and clearly what happened fell well short of this.”
She cited multiple examples of a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff who had to remove red wine from walls after one event.
For months, evidence of the parties has dripped out into the media, forcing Johnson to apologise, change his office team and promise a reset to try to restore his authority.
Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer said it was time for Johnson to quit, saying the report laid bare that the government believed that it was one rule for them and another for everyone else.
“You cannot be a lawmaker and a law-breaker,” Starmer – himself under police investigation for breaking COVID rules, told parliament. He has said he’ll resign if fined.
Johnson’s immediate fate lies in the hands of his Conservative lawmakers who can call for a leadership challenge.
Many had said they would wait for Gray’s full report before deciding whether to demand Johnson should go.
“Are you willing day in and day out to defend his behaviour publicly?” Tobias Ellwood, a long-time critic of Johnson, implored of his parliamentary colleagues.
Others felt the report was less damning than it could have been. “This is all so banal,” one Conservative said on condition of anonymity.
Johnson had initially denied there had been parties or rule-breaking at Downing Street, and some lawmakers say his position is untenable if he is found to have lied to parliament, a matter under investigation by the Committee of Privileges.
By way of apology for his earlier denials, said he wanted to “correct for the record” that no rules were broken. “Clearly this was not the case for some of those gatherings after I had left,” Johnson told parliament.