Boris Johnson’s premiership teeters over ‘PartyGate’ as apology prompts disbelief and mockery
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologized Wednesday over a drinks event—attended by dozens of employees—that took place at his official residence in May 2020, a time when the rest of the U.K. was being ordered to avoid social gatherings.
However, the wording of the apology did little to quell outrage over what is being referred to as “PartyGate,” and speculation mounted that Johnson would be unable to survive as Prime Minister, with the growing possibility that his own Conservative Party would oust him as its leader. That would mean the installation of a new Prime Minister.
The May 20 party initially came to light last week, when former Johnson adviser Dominic Cummings published a blog post pushing back against press reports that a separate No. 10 Downing Street gathering on May 15 was a rule-breaking party. In the post, Cummings claimed a senior official had invited people to drinks five days later, and he and at least one other adviser had fruitlessly argued it was against the rules.
That invitation, sent to over 100 people, was leaked on Monday to television channel ITV. “After what has been an incredibly busy period we thought it would be nice to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the No10 garden this evening,” the email from Martin Reynolds—Johnson’s principal private secretary—read. “Please join us from 6pm and bring your own booze!”
On Wednesday, after two days of refusing to address reports of his own attendance at that party, Johnson faced the opposition at Parliament’s weekly Prime Minister’s Questions, in which the Prime Minister must stand in the chamber of the House of Commons and answer questions from legislators.
“I want to apologize,” he began, saying he recognized the public’s anger and “must take responsibility.” However, he continued: “When I went into that garden just after six on May 20, 2020, to thank groups of staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later to continue working, I believed implicitly that this was a work event.”
“I should have recognized that even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance, there are millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way, people who have suffered terribly, people who were forbidden for meeting loved ones at all inside or outside, and to them and to this House I offer my heartfelt apologies,” the Prime Minister added.
The apology went down like a lead balloon in Parliament, with Labour leader Keir Starmer, who heads the opposition, and others repeatedly urging Johnson to resign. The former-Johnson loyalist-turned-critic Cummings tweeted there was “no way” the event was technically within the rules, characterizing Johnson’s claim as “bullshit.”
Social media exploded with mockery, with even the airline Ryanair getting in on the act:
The Labour Party lacks the votes to force Johnson out. But it is the outrage over his conduct from within his own Conservative Party that has placed Johnson’s political future in extreme jeopardy.
Many political journalists reported receiving messages from Conservative MPs that suggest Johnson is toast: the Spectator‘s Isabel Hardman tweeted a text that featured a gravestone, and the Guardian‘s Aubrey Allegretti said one MP told him Johnson’s authority was “gone.”
“One senior Tory MP texts, ‘I think he’s made it worse. He admitted he was present and tried to pass it off as a work party. Won’t wash,'” tweeted the Financial Times‘ Sebastian Payne.
Johnson was already on thin ice with the public and his party due to a string of scandals, recently including a maskless appearance at a hospital, and his alleged support for a Conservative donor’s business plan after the donor paid for an expensive redecoration of Johnson’s government-provided apartments, complete with gold wallpaper.
Most damaging of all—until now—was Johnson’s failed attempt to protect Conservative MP Owen Paterson from being suspended, after Paterson was caught breaking lobbying rules. The Prime Minister tried to get Parliament’s disciplinary rules changed but, after his party backed the move, was forced by a public outcry into a reversal.
With Johnson now refusing to resign, there are two things that could bring him down.
The first is an ongoing inquiry by senior civil servant Sue Gray into the various Downing Street lockdown-party claims. When she concludes the inquiry—a process that could take days or weeks—Gray could find that Johnson broke parliamentary rules.
Johnson’s more immediate worry, however, is Conservative lawmakers sending letters demanding a vote of no confidence to something called the 1922 Committee, which consists of the Conservative Party’s backbenchers and has a key role in selecting the party’s leader. If the Committee receives 54 such letters, it triggers a no-confidence vote. If Johnson loses that vote, which seems likely, an election for a new party leader—who would also be the new Prime Minister since U.K. voters elect a party not a candidate—takes place. Johnson’s likeliest successor would be either Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary.
The question now is how long Johnson’s party wants to keep him in post. With neither Sunak nor Truss having a clear majority of Tory lawmakers on their side, a leadership election could prove messy. On the other hand, Johnson is probably no longer the general-election winner he once was—a poll this week suggested two-thirds of the British public want him out.
The Conservatives have already suffered humiliating defeats in by-elections held in districts that have been its traditional strongholds, defeats for which many party members hold Johnson responsible. Another round of local elections takes place in May. Some party members may want to keep Johnson in place at least until then—to see if he can improve the party’s showing, or at least take the fall for any drubbing it receives.
Now Johnson just has to hope that his party doesn’t choose to zap him instead.
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