LONDON, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 08: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a press conference at 10 Downing Street.
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LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership is on a knife edge as a scandal over “parties” being held in Downing Street – and allegedly in various other government departments – during the UK’s Covid-19 lockdowns has sparked calls for his resignation.
Senior Conservative Party officials are calling on Johnson to resign after he admitted on Wednesday that he attended a garden party at Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s office, and lives next door, during the lockdown, as the public was not allowed to see more than one person in an outdoor setting that she did not live with.
Reports of parties as the British public sacrificed their freedoms and social life, not to mention time spent with loved ones, sparked widespread anger. Senior officials question whether Johnson can still command respect for the party and the country.
CNBC has a guide to “partygate” and why Johnson’s term may be coming to an end.
What is going on?
Johnson admitted he attended a party billed as a ‘bring your own booze’ rally in Downing Street Garden, to which around 100 people were said to have been invited, during the lockdown.
Addressing a packed House of Commons (the lower house of parliament), Johnson offered his ‘sincere apologies’ to the nation but defended himself, saying he only attended the party for 25 minutes in order to “thank groups of employees” for their hard work. work and that he “implicitly believed it was a work-related event”.
Addressing parliament, opposition Labor leader Keir Starmer said Johnson’s explanation for his attendance was ‘so ridiculous that it is in fact offensive to the British public’ as he called Johnson “to do what is decent and resign”.
The party Johnson attended is controversial as it took place on May 20, 2020, when the UK was in its first Covid lockdown and people across the country were only allowed to meet one another person outside their household, among other strict rules.
This is also not the first report of a lockdown party hosted by government officials.
Other parties under investigation
The emergence of details surrounding the May 20 party, hosted by the Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary, Martin Reynolds, comes after several weeks of reports and evidence from various parties and rallies – defended by government officials as “events of Labour” – held in Downing Street and other government offices at various times during the pandemic.
As the British media doggedly sought to expose more details of the parties, with details and photos of a number of them leaked to the press, the British public grew increasingly angry as the Gatherings invariably took place at times when people weren’t supposed to socialize.
On May 20, for example, the rules in place meant that couples or parents who lived apart were not allowed to kiss. Non-essential shops, restaurants, pubs and bars were also all closed at the time.
People who have lost loved ones during the pandemic have looked down on the government following reports from the parties, feeling deprived of precious family time while politicians flouted the rules.
Earlier this week, Johnson was asked if he and his wife Carrie Johnson attended the May 20 party, but he dodged the question, telling a reporter that an investigation into several parties allegedly held and attended by government personnel is ongoing.
The investigation into whether parties broke the rules is being led by senior official Sue Gray, who is expected to present her findings next week. Sky News has published a list of the alleged parties here.
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case was originally set to lead the inquiry but was forced out of the inquiry after it was revealed a rally had taken place in his own private office in December 2020 , also breaking the rules in force at the time.
How bad is that for Boris?
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves the Houses of Parliament after weekly PMQs on January 12, 2022 in London, England. During Prime Minister’s Questions today, Boris Johnson told the House he joined staff in the garden at 10 Downing Street for 25 minutes shortly after 6pm on May 20, 2020, during the coronavirus lockdown. He said he “implicitly believed it was a work event” and returned to work at No 10 afterwards.
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According to Sky News, letters from Conservative Party lawmakers demanding a vote of no confidence – 54 letters are needed to trigger a challenge – have allegedly been submitted to Graham Brady, who chairs the 1922 backbench committee which oversees leadership challenges .
In other bad news for Johnson, a new opinion poll by YouGov and The Times newspaper showed a sharp drop in support for the Conservatives, giving Tory lawmakers more reason to question Johnson’s future in office.
Whether Johnson will heed calls to resign is another question, with reports suggesting he still has the backing of his closest ministers, his cabinet. Johnson and his government have also weathered political storms before and gained some credit for “doing Brexit”. Despite this week’s furor, sterling was trading down 0.2% against the dollar on Thursday, with the pound trading at $1.3728 and up almost 0.2% year-to-date.
Conservative lawmakers will now weigh whether they think Johnson can win a future election, given low public confidence in him. Local elections are held in May and this will be the next test of strength of public support for the party itself. A deeper test for the Prime Minister will be the release of Sue Gray’s findings following her inquiry into government ‘parties’, which is due next week.
Rod Dacombe, director of the Center for British Politics and Government at King’s College London, told CNBC on Thursday that Johnson was “in a permanent state of crisis” during his term as prime minister, which began in 2019, first with tumultuous Brexit negotiations and a tortured deal, then with the Covid pandemic.
“The danger of election problems for the Conservative Party as a whole really hangs over its head,” he noted. “If he stops becoming electorally useful to the party, I think he will face real problems and that’s what the polling data tells us.”
Dacombe thought Johnson “is in what looks like a terminal position, I think that’s fair, but I suspect it will be a while before we see a real challenge to his leadership,” he said. he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe.”
Should a challenge arise, there is speculation that Finance Minister Rishi Sunak could be on the front line. Dacombe agreed, saying that “conventionally you would think he [a challenge] would be one of the biggest names in the party…but there’s always a chance someone is slightly outside the mainstream…so that’s an open field, I’d say.