UK's PM urged to quit over drunken 'Partygate' culture

Wednesday May 25 2022
Boris Johnson

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a press conference in the Downing Street Briefing Room in central London on May 25, 2022, following the publication of the Sue Gray report. PHOTO | AFP

By AFP

London. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson rejected calls to resign after an inquiry Wednesday found that he presided over a culture of lockdown-breaking parties that featured drunken fighting among staff.

Johnson is among dozens of people in Downing Street who have received police fines for breaching Covid regulations since 2020 -- making Number 10 the most penalised address in the entire country.

"I take full responsibility for everything that took place on my watch," he told MPs in response to the long-awaited report by senior civil servant Sue Gray, insisting: "I am humbled, and I have learned."

But Johnson said he was absent from most of the events, and denied ever lying to parliament, or urging Gray privately to bury her 37-page report.

He expressed hope that with the investigation now over, "we will be able to move on" in addressing priorities including the war in Ukraine and a spiralling cost-of-living crisis in Britain.

Gray published photographs of Johnson toasting staff with wine and described revelling that sometimes stretched into the early hours to music from a karaoke machine.

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"Many of these events should not have been allowed to happen," Gray wrote, revealing that Downing Street security and cleaning staff were mocked when they tried to protest at the staff conduct.

Junior staffers who ended up fined by London's Metropolitan police -- most of them women -- had been told to attend events by their bosses, the report found.

"The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture," Gray added, noting the painful sacrifices made by the UK public to respect the rules set by Johnson's government.


Pack your bags'

The report came out as a different photograph published by the Daily Mirror newspaper showed a Downing Street table laden with wine bottles and doughnuts.

It said an accompanying WhatsApp message told staff: "Time to open the Covid secure bar."

The prime minister defied calls to resign after he received the police fine in April.

The main opposition Labour party said the "catalogue of criminality" revealed by Gray's report vindicated its demands for Johnson to quit.

"You cannot be a lawmaker and a law-breaker," Labour leader Keir Starmer told Johnson in the House of Commons.

"It's time to pack his bags," added Starmer, who has vowed to quit himself if fined by police in northeast England for an alleged breach of the Covid regulations during an election campaign meeting.


With opinion polls showing deep public disapproval of "Partygate", Conservative MPs must calculate whether Johnson remains an electoral asset or is now a liability heading into two important by-elections next month.

Last month, the Conservatives lost hundreds of council seats in local elections, although anger at the eye-watering rise in the cost of living was seen as the main issue at the ballot box.

Johnson was due later to hold a news conference, before attending a meeting of backbench Tories, some of whom have written to demand a no-confidence vote.

Senior Conservative Tobias Ellwood reiterated his demands for Johnson to go, warning his colleagues that the party could lose the next general election due by 2024.

"Can we continue to govern without distraction given the erosion of the trust with the British people?" he said in parliament.

But Johnson replied "emphatically yes, we are going to go on and win the next general election because we're going to get on with the job".


Vomiting

In her findings, Gray said the Downing Street press office organised regular "WTF" ("Wine-Time Friday") drinks starting at 4:00 pm.

She showed senior officials discussing how to handle various invitations.

In one WhatsApp exchange, Johnson's former communications director Lee Cain noted the "rather substantial comms risks" of holding a leaving party for an official in June 2020.

Gray said the party went ahead, lasting hours.

"There was excessive alcohol consumption by some individuals. One individual was sick," she wrote. "There was a minor altercation between two other individuals."

In another exchange following a garden party in May 2020 where senior official Martin Reynolds invited staff to "bring your own booze", Reynolds told an unnamed colleague that the media were focused on an unspecified "non-story".

But he said that was "better than them focusing on our drinks (which we seem to have got away with)".