Boris Johnson, Under Fire, Apologizes for Pandemic Party

LONDON – Faced with a life-threatening threat to its leaders, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday apologized contrite for attending a garden party in Downing Street as his country was under strict coronavirus lockdown.

Mr Johnson, who had not previously admitted to being at the party, admitted his conduct offended the public. But he insisted he believed the rally to be a business event that did not violate government regulations on gender diversity during the early days of the pandemic – a claim that sparked disbelief among critics and did little to quell the unrest within the ranks of his Conservative Party.

“I want to apologize,” said a late Mr Johnson during an extraordinarily tense Prime Minister’s Questions session. “I know the rage they feel against me and with the government I lead when they think that in Downing Street itself the rules are not being properly followed by the people making the rules.”

“There were things we just didn’t understand,” Mr Johnson added, “and I have to take that responsibility.”

The apology could have given the prime minister some political leeway, analysts said. Yet that did little to dispel the storm clouds over him, with the opposition Labor Party demanding his resignation and Tory backbenchers fearing a public backlash. His fate, some say, now depended on an internal investigation into the May 2020 holiday and other social gatherings.

Senior Labor Party officials have been scathing in their condemnation. “The party is over, Prime Minister,” Labor leader Keir Starmer said. “The only question is, ‘Will the British public kick him out? “Will his party kick him out? Or will he do the decent thing and quit? “

In a significant setback for Mr Johnson, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross has also called on him to step down. “Unfortunately, I have to say that his position is no longer tenable,” Ross told Sky News, adding that he had spoken with the Prime Minister on Wednesday afternoon to explain his position.

Earlier, Mr Johnson had asked lawmakers to wait for the findings of the inquiry, led by senior official Sue Gray. But he looked besieged and unhinged under a torrent of questions from Mr. Starmer, a former prosecutor. There were none of the jokes, smirks or sharp lines that have often supported Mr Johnson in difficult times in public life.

The prime minister’s defense of the party as a “professional event” was notable because it could exonerate him from accusations of misleading parliament, the kind of transgression that would increase pressure on the prime minister to he resigns.

He said he viewed the BYOB rally, a month after suffering a Covid crisis himself, as a chance to thank staff members for their efforts during the initial phase of the pandemic. This explanation, however, seemed at odds with a recently received email invitation from her private secretary, Martin Reynolds, who described the party as an opportunity “to make the most of the good weather and have a drink from a distance.”

Mr Johnson said he now understands that the public, who were told at the time not to meet more than one person outside of their home, would view this as an unacceptable double standard.

“Looking back,” he said, “I should have sent everyone back inside. I should have found another way to thank them.

Opposition lawmakers greeted the explanation with shouts, while the Tory benches behind Mr Johnson were largely covered in stone. One of the Prime Minister’s problems is that his admission came after weeks of misleading statements about the existence of such gatherings in Downing Street.

On December 8, he told the House of Commons: ‘I have been assured several times since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rule had been broken. . A week later, he told reporters: “I can tell you once again that I certainly haven’t broken any rules.”

On December 20, after The Guardian newspaper published a photo of the Prime Minister mingling with colleagues over wine and cheese in his garden during a lockdown, he said: “These were people at work, talking working. “

Unlike other ethical issues that have followed Mr Johnson throughout his career, the fury over the holidays struck a chord with audiences. People vividly remember the dark months of the start of the pandemic, when they were told to isolate themselves at home, forbidden to visit elderly relatives, even if they fell ill.

And many questions about the holiday remain unanswered. Mr Johnson’s assistants said he had not seen the email asking guests to bring their own alcohol. But they wouldn’t say how he learned of the event; whether he himself brought a bottle or drank a glass; and why his wife Carrie Johnson, then his fiancée, attended.

Mr Johnson, a 57-year-old former journalist, has garnered grassroots support from the Conservatives in large part thanks to his record of electoral victories, and some of that residual support remains. Conor Burns, a young Conservative cabinet minister, told the BBC on Wednesday: “I have absolute confidence and faith in Boris Johnson, and he is determined to restore confidence.”

But there are signs that his support within the party is faltering. Roger Gale, Tory lawmaker and outspoken critic of Mr Johnson, told the BBC the Prime Minister had misled Parliament and was “politically a walking dead man”.

In order for Mr Johnson to be kicked out, 54 Tory lawmakers would have to write to Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee, which represents Tory backbenchers, and demand a vote of no confidence in Mr Johnson. These communications are private, so it’s unclear how many requests were sent, although analysts say they believe the number is likely still low.

If that changes, Mr Johnson would have to win a majority in a vote among 361 Tory lawmakers to survive. If he did, he could not be challenged for another 12 months unless the rules were revised.

Even without a leadership race, lawmakers and government officials can pressure an unpopular prime minister in other ways, such as if ministers resign from government or cabinet members rebel.

The best hope for Mr Johnson is that he can weather the immediate storm and Ms Gray’s investigation will be less conclusive than critics of the Prime Minister would like. Under these circumstances, Mr Johnson might be able to keep fighting, even if he might have to sacrifice some of his key aides.

But among some Tory lawmakers, the price for loyalty to Mr Johnson already seemed too high. “How to defend the indefensible? You can not ! Christian Wakeford, a Conservative lawmaker, wrote on Twitter Wednesday.

Paul Goodman, former lawmaker and editor of the influential ConservativeHome website, suggested in a blog post on Wednesday that while Mr Johnson could survive, the crisis could be a fatal blow to him.

“So would it be better,” he wrote, “for the Party to take the brunt of a Prime Minister’s resignation now – and plunge into the uncertainties that would follow – rather than prolong the pain?

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