LONDON – Caught partying during a pandemic, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson bought himself some breathing space with an apology and a promise to change. But his troubles are far from over.
Johnson was battling to rally a rancorous Conservative Party on Tuesday after an inquiry slammed failures at the top that led to Downing Street staff holding boozy parties while the country was in lockdown.
He told lawmakers in Parliament “I get it, and I will fix it,” promising to overhaul the way his office runs after senior civil servant Sue Gray found in her partial report that “failures of leadership and judgment” allowed events to occur that “should not have been allowed to take place.”
Johnson addressed scores of Conservative legislators behind closed doors on Monday night, assuring them he took criticisms seriously and promising to get a tighter grip on a Downing Street operation that Gray found was marked by excessive drinking and dysfunctional dynamics.
Johnson rallied his Cabinet at its weekly meeting on Tuesday — where “partygate” didn't come up, Johnson's spokesman insisted — before flying to Kyiv for talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy over the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab defended Johnson, saying: “He believes he acted in good faith on the advice he had at all times.”
Johnson’s grip on power has been shaken by revelations that his staff held “bring your own booze” office parties, birthday celebrations and “wine time Fridays” at Downing Street at times in 2020 and 2021 when Britons were barred from socializing to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
There could be worse to come. Gray only released her findings on four of 16 events being probed, because police are investigating the other dozen — including an alleged ABBA-themed party in the prime minister’s private Downing Street apartment. Gray is expected to produce a full report once the police investigation is finished. The government initially declined to promise that report would be published in full, but agreed to do so late Monday after coming under intense pressure.
For now, many Conservatives are biding their time, sticking by the leader who won them an 80-seat parliamentary majority in 2019.
The party has a history of ousting leaders once they become liabilities, and Johnson could yet face a no-confidence vote from his own side if the police or Gray produce more damning evidence. Under party rules, such a vote is triggered if 15% of party lawmakers — currently 54 people — write letters calling for one.
It's not known how many letters have been sent. Peter Aldous, a Conservative legislator since 2010, said Tuesday that he had written one. He tweeted: "After a great deal of soul-searching, I have reached the conclusion that the Prime Minister should resign."
Some Tories felt that, despite promising to change, Johnson had showed a lack of contrition and a failure to understand the anger felt at the “partygate” revelations by millions who put up with loneliness or worse in order to follow the rules.
In his meeting with lawmakers, Johnson said he was bringing back Lynton Crosby, an Australian political strategist with long ties to the Conservatives, to help him overhaul the government operation.
Critics said Johnson needed to show humility, rather than hard-nosed politicking.
In the House of Commons on Monday, Johnson accused opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer of “failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile” when he was the U.K.’s director of public prosecutions. Savile was a veteran television personality who was revealed after his death in 2011 as a serial sexual abuser.
Starmer said it was “a ridiculous slur peddled by right-wing trolls,” and some Conservatives recoiled at the attack. Conservative lawmaker Julian Knight called it a “baseless” slur that should be withdrawn.
Johnson’s spokesman said the prime minister stood by the remark.
Former Conservative leader William Hague said Johnson had done “the minimum in responding to the report rather than (going) further in his apology and his proposals.”
“Instead of reinforcing the momentum in his favour, he quite possibly stalled it,” Hague wrote in The Times of London. “If I were him, I would be very worried about the number of his own MPs who asked unhelpful questions at the end of his statement.”
In the House of Commons on Monday, one Conservative lawmaker, who said that he obeyed lockdown rules during the funeral of his grandmother, asked whether the prime minister “thinks I’m a fool.” Former Prime Minister Theresa May accused Johnson and his staff of thinking the rules didn't apply to them.
Former Cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell, who withdrew his support from Johnson on Monday, said the crisis was corroding the party like “battery acid.”
“I think this is a crisis that is not going to go away and is doing very great damage to the party,” he told the BBC.