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Report on Downing Street parties deepens crisis for Boris Johnson

Johnson had hoped the release of the 11-page document
would allow him to put a festering scandal over illicit parties behind him. But
instead he was battered in Parliament, facing a new round of questions about
his personal participation in social gatherings that appear to have violated
lockdown rules meant to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Even in heavily redacted form, the report by Sue Gray,
a senior civil servant, deepened the crisis that has engulfed Johnson for
weeks, ever since reports of inappropriate gatherings surfaced late last year
and raised a storm of criticism over a double standard: that the prime minister
and his staff could flout the pandemic rules while insisting the rest of the
country obey them.

“There were failures of leadership and judgment by
different parts of No. 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times,” Gray
wrote of the management in Downing Street. “Some of the events should not have
been allowed to take place. Other events should not have been allowed to
develop as they did.”

In his bruising appearance in Parliament, Johnson
faced a further call to resign from a senior member of his Conservative Party,
as well as repeated demands to release the full report from the investigator —
eventually forcing Downing Street to say it would.

Gray was forced to scrub the document of its
potentially most damaging details because London’s Metropolitan Police is
investigating eight parties, including one held in Johnson’s own apartment, and
they did not want the findings to prejudice their investigation. Ominously,
police said late Monday that they had so far collected more than 500 pages of
evidence and more than 300 photos.

Already confronting a revolt within his party, Johnson
was forced to watch as Conservatives rose, one after the other, to scold him
for allowing an unruly, alcohol-soaked culture to thrive in Downing Street. His
predecessor as prime minister, Theresa May, summed up the gathering sense of
opprobrium.

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The British public, she declared, “had a right to
expect their prime minister to have read the rules, to understand the meaning
of the rules.” Arguing that the report clearly showed Downing Street had
flouted pandemic restrictions, she asked Johnson if he “either had not read the
rules, or didn’t understand what they meant, and others around him, or they
didn’t think the rules applied to No. 10. Which was it?”

Johnson denied that the report found wrongdoing and
pleaded with May to wait for the completion of the police inquiry. After
deflecting multiple questions about whether he would release Gray’s
unexpurgated report after that — drawing heckles from the opposition and stony
silence from his backbenchers — Downing Street relented late Monday.

“I get it, and I will fix it,” a beleaguered Johnson
said earlier. He insisted that his track record on Brexit and the rollout of
coronavirus vaccines ought to outweigh what he conceded was his mishandling of
this issue, for which he apologized once again Monday.

Johnson’s contrition did little to calm the inflamed
mood in the House of Commons. The leader of the opposition Scottish National
Party in the British Parliament, Ian Blackford, was expelled after he bluntly
accused Johnson of lying to members — a breach of parliamentary protocol.

For Johnson, the dramatic events upended his plans to
pivot to crowd-pleasing announcements on the economy and government
regulations, as well as to claim the mantle of a statesman in the mushrooming
crisis over Ukraine.

A planned phone call with President Vladimir Putin of
Russia did not take place, as Johnson instead faced 90 minutes of questions in
Parliament. On Tuesday, Johnson is scheduled to travel to Ukraine for a meeting
with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, his most direct involvement in a crisis
that until now, he has largely delegated to Britain’s foreign secretary and
defence secretary.

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Knowing that the report would be very limited in
scope, Downing Street had hoped its publication would help dissipate public anger
over lockdown parties and allow the government to move onto other issues. So
abridged was the document that the Cabinet Office referred to it as an “update”
of Gray’s investigation rather than as a report.

But the report painted a troubling portrait of a
hothouse work culture at Downing Street, where staff members held alcohol-fuelled
gatherings through much of 2020, a period when the government was urging the
public to avoid socialising, even with close friends and relatives.

“The excessive consumption of alcohol is not
appropriate in a professional workplace at any time,” Gray wrote, adding that
government agencies needed “a clear and robust policy in place covering the
consumption of alcohol in the workplace.” At one point during the debate, Johnson
denied that he had drunk too much while on the job.

All told, Gray’s report referred to 16 social
gatherings at Downing Street and in nearby offices during lockdown periods.
Johnson is known to have been present at least three of these, including a
garden party in May 2020 that he has insisted he believed was a work event
intended to thank staff members.

The report also alluded to a gathering held in
Johnson’s apartment, which is above 11 Downing St., on Nov. 13, 2020. That is
the day that the prime minister fired his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, who
has since become Johnson’s archnemesis, leaking details about the turmoil and
intrigue inside Downing Street.

Johnson has declined to comment on that party, which
is under police investigation. London newspapers have taken to calling it the
“ABBA party,” since people outside said they heard “The Winner Takes it All,” a
1970s hit from the Swedish pop group wafting from the windows.

Some said Johnson might have been better served by
putting more details into the public domain rather than leaving the issue
hanging over him. Now, he remains beleaguered and fighting to hold onto his
office, with more members of his own party turning against him.

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During the debate, a senior Conservative lawmaker,
Andrew Mitchell, declared he no longer backed Johnson. A younger Tory, Aaron
Bell, spoke movingly about obeying all the rules while attending a socially
distanced funeral for his grandmother, where he said there were just 10 people.

“I did not hug my siblings. I did not hug my parents.
I gave a eulogy and afterwards, I did not even go into her house for a cup of
tea,” he said, adding that he then drove three hours to get home. “Does the
prime minister think I am a fool?”

Johnson has been scrambling to avoid a no-confidence
vote by Conservative lawmakers. Such a vote would be triggered if 54 members
submit confidential letters demanding it. That threshold has not yet been met,
and Johnson appeared to have shored up his position in recent days, with the
public outcry over the parties seeming to have ebbed.

But Monday, said Tim Bale, professor of politics at
Queen Mary, University of London, “It was very noticeable that not many
Conservative members of Parliament were standing up to ask supportive questions
even if loyalist ministers have fanned out to speak on his behalf in the
media.”

Johnson’s future, Bale said, now depended on how the
public reacts to the latest disclosure. At Kings Cross Station in London on
Monday, several people said they thought the government had betrayed the
public’s trust.

“He broke his own rules,” said Joanna Ashby, 55, a
nurse in the National Health Service. “I know people who died in lockdown. I
had to attend their funerals virtually. My niece never had a graduation — it
was taken away from her.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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