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Police open probe into Downing Street parties

Pressure on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to resign over “Partygate” is growing after London police opened a criminal probe into possible lockdown breaches at Downing Street.

(CN) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's troubles worsened sharply on Tuesday after London police opened an investigation into allegations that parties took place at Downing Street and Whitehall in violation of restrictions against the novel coronavirus.

Commissioner Cressida Dick, the head of the Metropolitan Police Service, announced a criminal probe into what's become dubbed “Partygate” by British media.

“I can confirm that the Met is now investigating a number of events that took place at Downing Street and Whitehall in the last two years in relation to potential breaches of Covid-19 regulations,” Dick said. “I absolutely understand that there is deep public concern about the allegations that have been in the media over the past several weeks.”

Downing Street is where the residence and offices of the prime minister are located and Whitehall is an adjacent street with many government buildings and ministries.

The latest revelation relates to reports that Johnson celebrated his birthday on June 19, 2020, with about 30 other people at a time when indoor gatherings were banned. His wife Carrie allegedly organized it as a surprise party inside the Cabinet Room.

The criminal probe throws Johnson's leadership skills into further doubt and leaves him extremely vulnerable. Opposition parties are calling for him to resign and his support within his Conservative Party is eroding.

“With Boris Johnson’s Downing Street now under police investigation, how on earth can he think he can stay on as prime minister?” said Angela Rayner, the deputy leader for the Labour Party, the main opposition in parliament. “Boris Johnson is a national distraction. Conservative MPs should stop propping him up and he should finally do the decent thing and resign.”

Details about several parties among Johnson's staff and central government workers have emerged in recent weeks, sparking outrage and leading to public outcry. Public opinion polls show support for him has crumbled with many viewing him as untruthful and regarding himself as above the law.

Johnson, speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday, said he welcomed the police probe and said it had grown out of an independent inquiry that he had launched.

The prime minister has sought to defend his actions by saying the gatherings were “work events” that did not breach the restrictions.

“I welcome the Met’s decision to conduct its own investigation because I believe this will help to give the public the clarity it needs and help to draw a line under matters,” he said.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson jogs in central London in the early morning hours of Monday, Jan. 24, 2022. (Aaron Chown/PA via AP)

Johnson came into office in 2019 with a reputation as a bullish man with a history of drinking escapades and a well-known love of parties. He rose to the top of British politics in 2016 by championing the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union and his surprising success with the Brexit referendum opened the door for him to become prime minister.

His chance to take over the leadership came in 2019 as he led efforts to torpedo former Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal with the EU. He and other hard-line Tories rejected May's deal because they said it left the U.K. too tied to EU rules and laws.

May resigned and Johnson won a leadership battle before forcefully manouvering the U.K. out of the EU. He tightened his grip on power in December 2019 with a landslide election win against Labour leader Jeremy Corbin and he was in a celebratory mood as Britain formally left the EU with the New Year in 2020.

But his Brexit jubilation was soon overshadowed by the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic and his leadership style mixing upper-class haughtiness, humor and antics proved hardly fit for taking on a deadly serious pandemic.

Initially, Johnson advocated a lax approach to handling the spread of the novel coronavirus and downplayed its seriousness. He was seen shaking hands, even with hospital staff, and not wearing a mask in the early stages of the pandemic. Then he and other Cabinet members, including his health secretary, got infected and Johnson fell seriously ill.

In the meantime, the U.K. became the epicenter of the pandemic in Europe and recorded the region's highest number of cases and deaths. Since the start of the pandemic, data show nearly 16 million infections have been detected in Britain and nearly 154,000 people have died from Covid-19, the name of the disease caused by the virus. Johnson's poor handling of the pandemic is often blamed for Britain's troubles. Britain later got ahead of other European countries in the race to vaccinate people and his government touted that success as proof that Brexit was worth it and that Johnson handled the pandemic well.

Dick, the police commissioner, said the probe was opened on grounds that there was evidence that some of those who participated in the parties knew or ought to have known that what they were doing broke the rules. She added that the probe was launched to ensure “the legitimacy of the law.”

“We will not be giving a running commentary on our current investigations, but I can assure you that we will give updates at significant points as we would normally do,” she said.

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

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