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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
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‘Partygate’ row threatens to end Boris Johnson’s premiership

Boris Johnson always dreamed of being prime minister or “king of the world,” as he put it as a boy. Now he is at risk of being shamefully drummed out of office as a scandal grows over parties he and his staff held during Great Britain's coronavirus lockdown.

(CN) — Boris Johnson came into Downing Street as the mop-haired bad boy of Tory politics who dreamed of becoming a new Winston Churchill. No doubt, he will go down in history as the prime minister who got Brexit done, but now he's watching all his dreams and his own premiership at risk of becoming undone by “Partygate.”

Prime Minister Johnson and his Tory party are getting swallowed up in a tidal wave of anger over revelations that Johnson and his staff held large drinking parties in Downing Street during the height of the lockdown, an apparent breach of rules. At the time, Johnson was accused of having a cavalier attitude toward the virus, which he contracted early on in the pandemic and he fell seriously ill.

During weeks of rumors and a drip-drip of leaks, he is accused of misleading parliament about the parties. An inquiry into the party Johnson attended and others that apparently took place in Downing Street has been launched.

Since the start of the pandemic, his government has been haunted by its poor handling of the crisis and for its officials breaching lockdown rules. A former health minister, Matt Hancock, resigned due to revelations his girlfriend visited him in violation of the rules. Johnson's chief strategist, Dominic Cummings, was fired for taking a long car trip to northeastern England during the lockdown.

On Wednesday, Johnson admitted during a raucous session of parliament that he attended a party in the garden of Downing Street on May 20, 2020.

“Mr. Speaker, I want to apologize,” a visibly tired Johnson said in a brief statement prior to the opening of Prime Minister's Questions, a weekly occasion for a prime minister to take questions from parliamentarians.

Revelations about the parties have been deeply embarrassing and glaringly expose Johnson to what his critics have said all along: that he is a selfish showman with a penchant for drinking and partying with a limited ability for serious policymaking. Johnson, an upper-class Englishman and former newspaper columnist, came into office by championing Brexit, but critics warned he was a Donald Trump-like figure.

This scandal, though, seems especially egregious because Johnson seems to have made mockery of the lockdown rules he was imposing on the rest of the British public.

“The Party's Over,” blared the headline of The Sun, a tabloid newspaper and a favorite among conservative working-class Brits. On Wednesday, opposition parties in parliament enjoyed a field day in the packed House of Commons and the nation was riveted. Within his Conservative Party, known for ruthlessly taking the dagger to embattled prime ministers in the past, the machinations of finding a successor are rolling.

Wednesday was a kind of last stand for Johnson and he was forced to grovel before the House and beg for forgiveness from the nation with his political future in the balance.

“I know the rage they [the public] feel with me and with the government I lead when they think in Downing Street itself the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules,” he said. “There were things we simply did not get right and I must take responsibility.”

His statement of contrition drew howls, shouts and scorn from the opposition benches of Labour, the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats.

On May 20, 2020, about 100 Downing Street staff were invited to a party in a large adjacent garden to the prime minister's building and told to bring their own drinks, according to an email leaked to ITV. About 30 people showed up.

At the time, the United Kingdom was in the midst of a coronavirus lockdown and gatherings were forbidden. The country was in the grips of Europe's worst outbreak, a state of affairs largely due to Johnson's own initial missteps in delaying restrictions and even considering to let the virus run rampant through the population to achieve so-called “herd immunity.”

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In trying to save face, Johnson argued that the party was a “work event” that fell within the lockdown rules because it was held outside in the garden, “an extension of the office.” He said he attended the party for 25 minutes and thanked staff.

His explanation drew exasperated groans from the opposition benches.

“With hindsight, I should have sent everyone back inside, I should have found some other way to thank them,” he said. “And I should have recognized that even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance, there would be millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way; people who suffered terribly; people who were forbidden from meeting loved ones at all inside or outside and to them and to this House I offer my heartfelt apologies.”

Protestors hold placards in Parliament Square as Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends the weekly Prime Ministers' Questions session in parliament in London on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, attacked Johnson with fury when he was given his chance to direct questions at the prime minister.

“Well, there we have it, after months of deceit and deception, the pathetic spectacle of a man who's run out of road: His defense that he didn't realize he was at a party is so ridiculous that it is actually offensive to the British public,” Starmer said, drawing laughter and cheers.

“He's finally been forced to admit what everyone knew: That when the whole country was locked down, he was hosting boozy parties in Downing Street,” he said. “Is he now going to do the decent thing and resign?”

“Yeah!” opposition parliamentarians erupted in glee.

To contrast Johnson and his apparent disregard of the lockdown, his opponents highlighted stories of people who suffered isolation and loss during the lockdown and were unable to even be at the side of loved ones who died from the virus.

The Downing Street party revelations – dubbed “Partygate” by the British press – seem to have been stoked by Cummings, Johnson's former chief strategist, a Machiavelli-like figure in British politics considered the mastermind of Brexit. Since he was fired by Johnson, Cummings has issued a steady stream of accusations against Johnson on his blog and posted inside information about how Johnson mismanaged government.

Starmer accused Johnson of misleading parliament about what was going on in No. 10 Downing Street.

“It started with reports of boozy parties in Downing Street during lockdown; the prime minister pretended that he had been assured that there were no parties,” Starmer said, referring to Johnson's early denial of such events.

“And then the video landed blowing the prime minister's first defense out of the water,” he added, referring to a leaked video showing Johnson's communications team laughing about a party they held.

“So then he pretended he was sickened and furious about parties,” Starmer said. “Now it turns out he was at the parties all along. Can't the prime minister see why the British public think he's lying through his teeth?”

Starmer's punch elicited another wave of fury from the opposition benches. He said Johnson's lies breached the House of Commons' ministerial code, an offense that carries with it a duty to resign.

“That code says that ministers who knowingly mislead parliament will be expected to offer their resignation,” Starmer said. “The party's over prime minister. The only question is will the British public kick him out or will his party kick him out or will he do the decent thing and resign.”

Echoing Labour's position, Ian Blackford, the leader of the Scottish National Party in parliament, called for Johnson to step down too. Both Labour and the Scottish National Party tried vehemently to stop Brexit and Johnson is a reviled figure in their ranks, who accuse him of misleading the British public into voting to leave the European Union with half-truths and false promises.

“The prime minister has never followed any rules, he does what he wants and he gets away with it every time,” Blackford said.

“Not this time,” a fellow Scottish party member was heard saying in the background.

“The prime minister can't get away with it again,” Blackford said.

“What's so galling,” he continued, “is that the prime minister feels no shame for his actions. The public suffered pain and anguish and being kept apart from their families; all the while, the prime minister was drinking and laughing behind the walls of his private garden.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Government, Health, International, Politics

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