UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces renewed pressure over lockdown-breaking parties at Downing Street – Copyright AFP ARIS MESSINIS
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson braced Wednesday for the release of a potentially damaging inquiry into the “Partygate” scandal, as new allegations emerged about a culture of lockdown-breaking boozing in his offices.
A photograph published by the Daily Mirror newspaper showed a Downing Street table laden with wine bottles and doughnuts, and it said an accompanying WhatsApp message told staff: “Time to open the Covid secure bar.”
But the Mirror said that particular event in November 2020 was thought not to have been investigated by civil servant Sue Gray or London’s Metropolitan Police, which has issued multiple fines over other events, including one against Johnson himself.
The prime minister has defied calls to resign after he received the fine, but many MPs from his Conservative party are understood to be awaiting the details revealed in Gray’s full report before deciding whether to trigger a leadership ballot.
On Wednesday Gray’s report was handed to Johnson, who was set to deliver a statement in the House of Commons after his weekly session of Prime Minister’s Questions at 1100 GMT, officials confirmed.
He is expected later to hold a news conference to address Gray’s report, before a meeting of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tories.
Gray released a preliminary version of her report in January, but held off fuller publication as the Met announced its own investigation.
That is now complete with the issuance of 126 fines to 83 people, although the police force is under pressure to reopen the investigation as new evidence emerges.
– ‘Blurred boundaries’ –
The BBC’s Panorama programme late Tuesday interviewed people who attended another leaving party in November 2020, as daily deaths from Covid climbed towards a peak of more than 1,000 a day the following January.
They described a rule-breaking culture with dozens of people crowded into the room.
The party came days after the government ordered a second Covid lockdown in England and banned households from mixing to try to halt the close-contact spread of the virus.
The event was on a Friday, when the Downing Street press office organised regular “WTF” (“Wine-Time Friday”) drinks starting at 4:00 pm, according to Panorama.
A security guard was mocked when he tried to stop a party in full flow, people who attended told the BBC.
In photos published late on Monday by ITV News, Johnson can be seen raising a glass and chatting with several people around a table with bottles of wine and food.
The prime minister faces allegations that he lied to parliament in denying any such party ever took place, which would normally be considered a resigning offence.
With opinion polls showing deep public disapproval of “Partygate”, Conservative MPs must calculate whether Johnson remains an electoral asset or is now a liability heading into two important by-elections next month.
Last month, the Conservatives lost hundreds of council seats in local elections, although anger at the eye-watering rise in the cost of living was seen as the main issue at the ballot box.
Environment Secretary George Eustice acknowledged that a “culture” of workplace drinking had developed at Downing Street during the lockdowns.
“That boundary between what was acceptable and what wasn’t got blurred, and that was a mistake,” he told Times Radio.
“The prime minister himself has accepted that and recognises there were of course failings, and therefore there’s got to be some changes to the way the place is run,” Eustice added.