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Boris Johnson: Can the UK prime minister survive the Downing Street parties scandal?

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By Alasdair Sandford  & AP
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson watches journalists as he welcomes the Sultan of Oman, Haitham Bin Tarik Al Said, to 10 Downing Street in London, Dec. 16, 2021.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson watches journalists as he welcomes the Sultan of Oman, Haitham Bin Tarik Al Said, to 10 Downing Street in London, Dec. 16, 2021.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Frank Augstein, Pool

For weeks, Boris Johnson has faced calls to resign amid the furore over accusations that while most of the country was respecting the strict lockdown amid the pandemic — often at great personal sacrifice — the British prime minister and his inner team were paying scant regard to the rules they had drawn up.

A senior civil servant has been investigating the alleged parties and gatherings held in Johnson's Downing Street offices and residence, and other government departments. Following the latest "partygate" revelations, London's Metropolitan Police has also said it is launching its own inquiry. 

Several politicians in Johnson's own ruling Conservative Party have called on him to quit. One MP has defected to the opposition. But the embattled prime minister has repeatedly urged critics to wait for official conclusions. 

Sue Gray's report is expected to reveal details of the numerous events that have appeared in the press. A crucial question will be whether they shed light on the prime minister's own actions, what he knew, and — crucially — whether he lied to parliament.

As we wait for the report, Euronews recaps how we got here.

What parties took place and when?

Since December, several newspapers have published details of numerous gatherings among Johnson's Downing Street staff, which appear to have breached coronavirus lockdown restrictions at the time they were held.

Among the most notorious are:

  • May 2020: The first events happened during the first lockdown, although Johnson had just announced a "road map" for easing restrictions. But as they stood, people could not leave home without a reasonable excuse and could only meet one other person from a different household outside work. The Guardian published a photo of an event said to have taken place on May 15. Johnson and his wife are shown sitting outside drinking wine in the Downing Street garden with over a dozen advisers.
  • May 20, 2020: A leaked email from a senior Johnson aide invited more than 100 staff to "bring your own booze" to drinks in the Downing Street garden and "make the most of the lovely weather", according to ITV. Some 30-40 are said to have attended the gathering and the prime minister admitted to being present for 25 minutes. Shortly before the event, the then culture secretary Oliver Dowden told the nation at a news conference: "You can spend time outdoors and exercise as often as you like, and you can meet one person outside your household in an outdoor, public place, provided that you stay two metres apart."
  • June 19, 2020:  An afternoon birthday celebration involving up to 30 people was reportedly held for Johnson inside Downing Street, in an apparent breach of COVID-19 rules. At the time, restrictions allowed for gatherings of only up to six people. Indoor gatherings were banned.
  • November 2020: New lockdown restrictions were in place largely forcing people to stay at home and banning indoor gatherings. Dominic Cummings, Johnson's ex-aide who was fired that month, alleged a raucous party took place in the prime minister's flat. It's also claimed a gathering took place at the Treasury and a leaving event was held for a Downing Street adviser, which Johnson is said to have attended.
  • December 2020: A tier system replaced the national lockdown. In London, indoor meetings of two or more people were banned. But two dozen people are alleged to have attended an education department party. A Christmas party at the Conservatives' London headquarters, again attended by two dozen people, later prompted the resignation of the Tory candidate for the city's mayor. The transport department recently apologised over alleged "boozing and dancing" at its party on the day London restrictions were tightened further. Boris Johnson is alleged to have hosted a Christmas quiz in breach of the strict rules. Other drinks events are alleged in Downing Street, including on December 18. A year later ITV News broadcast a video showing staff joking about the event in a mock press conference, prompting the resignation of Johnson's then-press secretary Allegra Stratton.
  • April 2021: Two leaving parties were held for staff on the eve of the Duke of Edinburgh's socially distanced funeral, the Daily Telegraph revealed last week. Witnesses said the events carried on into the early hours and involved drinking and dancing. On the following day, images of Queen Elizabeth sitting masked and alone in church in line with COVID-19 restrictions were a stark symbol of the rigorous measures in place. Downing Street apologised to the royal family after the story appeared.

What has Boris Johnson said?

The prime minister has at times made carefully-worded apologies over the alleged events, while stopping short of admitting rule-breaking and urging people to wait for the outcome of Sue Gray's internal inquiry.

On December 8 he responded in the House of Commons to the video recording of the mock news conference held by his staff 12 months previously.

"I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing No. 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures. And 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... because I was also furious to see that clip."

"I apologise unreservedly for the offence that it has caused up and down the country, and I apologise for the impression that it gives. But I repeat, Mr Speaker, that I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party, and that no COVID rules were broken," he went on, adding that if the internal inquiry he ordered found evidence to the contrary, there would be "disciplinary action for all those involved".

Last week, on January 12, Boris Johnson appeared again at Prime Minister's Questions to respond to the revelations about the "bring your own booze" garden party in May 2020.

Apologising to the millions across the country who had made "extraordinary sacrifices", Johnson said "I know the rage they feel with me and with the Government I lead when they think that in Downing Street itself the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules".

"There were things that we simply did not get right, and I must take responsibility," he said, adding that he had attended for 25 minutes. But he also said he "believed implicitly that this was a work event" and that "it could be said technically to fall within the guidance", though millions would see it otherwise.

On January 18 Boris Johnson denied misleading parliament, in response to a claim from his former aide Dominic Cummings that he was warned that the event would violate coronavirus restrictions.

"I'm saying categorically that nobody told me, nobody said this was something that was against the rules, doing something that wasn't a work event because frankly, I can't imagine why it would have gone ahead, or it would have been allowed to go ahead if it was against the rules," the prime minister told Sky News.

What do Johnson's critics say?

Dominic Cummings, now a fierce critic of his ex-boss, wrote in his blog on January 17 that he and at least one other adviser had warned that the party on May 20, 2020 "seemed to be against the rules and should not happen".

He said he told Johnson he had to get a grip of "this madhouse", but "the PM waved it aside".

"The events of 20 May alone, never mind the string of other events, mean the PM lied to Parliament about parties," Cummings claimed, adding that he and other eyewitnesses "would swear under oath this is what happened".

"The Prime Minister’s defence that he did not realise that he was at a party is so ridiculous that it is actually offensive to the British public," the Labour opposition leader Keir Starmer told the House of Commons on January 12, deriding "the pathetic spectacle of a man who has run out of road". He accused Johnson of "lying through his teeth" and called on him to "do the decent thing, and resign".

The leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in parliament, Ian Blackford, accused Boris Johnson of "betraying the nation's trust" and "treating the public with contempt".

Senior British government ministers have repeated the official line that people should await Sue Gray's report before judging the prime minister.

But even some within Johnson's own ruling Conservative Party have called on him to quit. A split has emerged between the Scottish Conservative Party, and the party at Westminster. Douglas Ross, the party leader in Scotland, said Johnson’s position “is no longer tenable”, and has been backed by other Scottish Tory MPs.

"Now, regretfully, he looks like a liability, and I think he either goes now or he goes in three years' time at a general election, and it's up to the party to decide which way round that's going to be. I know my thoughts are that he's damaging us now," said Conservative MP Caroline Nokes, a former immigration minister.

“There is a real sense of anger and disappointment within the party,” Conservative lawmaker Andrew Bowie told the BBC. “And I think that many MPs therefore are struggling with the decisions that they may have to take over the next few weeks.”

The most poignant call came from David Davis, a former Brexit minister and ally of the prime minister who resigned with Johnson in 2018 in protest against his predecessor Theresa May's Brexit plan.

"I expect my leaders to shoulder the responsibility for the actions they take. Yesterday he did the opposite of that," Davis told the prime minister on January 19.

Reminding him of the words of an MP to wartime prime minister Neville Chamberlain in 1940, he said: "You’ve sat there too long for all the good you’ve done, in the name of God, go."

Who is Sue Gray and what is her role?

Sue Gray is a senior but previously obscure civil servant who has served both Conservative and Labour governments over several decades. Her report into the allegations of lockdown-flouting parties on government property has thrown her into the public spotlight.

As head of “propriety and ethics” at the Cabinet Office, Gray investigated previous allegations of wrongdoing by ministers. She is regarded within government as a straight shooter unafraid to stand up to politicians.

She has had access to “all relevant records” and power to interview officials, including Johnson, in her attempt to uncover the facts. The prime minister’s office would not confirm whether Johnson has been quizzed by Gray, though Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said Johnson had “submitted himself” to investigation.

The civil servant can establish “whether individual disciplinary action is warranted” against officials. Crucially, though, Gray has limited room to censure Johnson. Usually, civil service inquiries make recommendations to the prime minister. Here it’s the prime minister who is being investigated, making Johnson the arbiter of his own punishment.

Alex Thomas, a program director at think-tank the Institute for Government, said those expecting the report to “either clear the prime minister or damn him” would likely be disappointed.

“This is a huge political and wider public issue,” he said. “The Gray report is an important part of finding out what happened. But in the end this is a judgment for Conservative Cabinet ministers and MPs about whether they want Boris Johnson to lead their party and therefore lead the country.”

What is 'Operation Red Meat'?

Unofficially dubbed "Operation Red Meat" in the press, in mid-January the government suddenly advanced several policy projects that are seen as an attempt to appeal to ruling Conservative politicians and party supporters and divert attention from questions surrounding Johnson's leadership.

On January 17, home secretary (interior minister) Priti Patel confirmed reports that the government was planning to involve the military in operations in the English Channel to try to limit the number of migrant crossings in small boats.

Later the same day, culture secretary Nadine Dorries said the government would freeze the BBC's licence fee until 2024, adding that the current funding system would end after 2027.

In recent months, the British government has repeatedly evoked the possible use of "Article 16" to suspend at least part of the Northern Ireland Protocol — part of the binding Brexit divorce treaty that Johnson himself struck with the EU — if negotiations with Brussels over arrangements fail to deliver improvements.

Last autumn such a move was touted as a potentially popular move domestically, which could boost support for Johnson amongst his base. Although more recently the government has moved away from highlighting it, foreign secretary Liz Truss — who has taken over the UK's Brexit negotiations with Brussels — has stressed that the option remains on the table.

Simon Usherwood, Professor of Politics and International Studies at the Open University, argues the weaker position in which Boris Johnson now finds himself restricts his choice -- and that to invoke Article 16 would be counterproductive.

"The problem is that in anything other than the short term, and the rally-round-the-flag effect that he might get, that causes even more problems — that Article 16 won't produce the concessions that he thinks it might. It's hard to see how the negotiations that would follow would produce anything more than the process that we're currently in," he said in his recent podcast.

Even if tempted by short term gain from triggering Article 16, "the flip-side though is that Johnson 'got Brexit done'. And the longer that politically speaking he goes on about Brexit, and the problems and how he's going to fix the problems, the more it calls into question that original statement," he added.

Without mentioning Article 16, the prime minister accused the EU in parliament on January 26 of implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol in an "insane and pettifogging way".

What could happen next?

Many politicians and others are waiting to see what Sue Gray says in her report, and how the public responds.

Even before "partygate", Boris Johnson faced internal party revolt and criticism over other scandals and mishaps — notably trying to bend parliamentary rules to save an ally, and a shambolic speech to business leaders.

Recent opinion polls have suggested the opposition Labour Party has opened up a double-digit lead over the Conservatives. Boris Johnson doesn't have to face voters’ judgment until the next general election, scheduled for 2024. But the Conservative Party has a history of ousting leaders once they become liabilities.

Under Conservative rules, a no-confidence vote in the leader can be triggered if 54 party lawmakers write letters demanding it. It’s unclear how many have already been submitted, and so far only a handful of Conservative members of Parliament have openly called for Johnson to quit.

His predecessor, Theresa May, was forced out in 2019 after failing to secure acceptable Brexit divorce terms with the European Union. Johnson could suffer the same fate if the party decides his popular appeal — the star quality that has seen him bounce back from past scandals — has vanished.

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