LONDON — If Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain had hoped to put a perilous stretch of political and ethical blunders behind him this year, his hopes were dashed Tuesday by a fresh kerfuffle: a BYOB garden party at 10 Downing Street that violated his own government’s pandemic lockdown rules.
The British news media reported that as many as 100 staff members were invited to a “bring your own booze” party in the backyard of Mr. Johnson’s residence in May 2020, a time when officials were instructing people not to socialize with more than a single person outside their families, to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Mr. Johnson has not denied the fact that he and Carrie attended the gathering that attracted about 30 guests. If true, this would contradict his claim last year in Parliament that he was told that there were no Downing Street parties breaking social-distancing laws. The Metropolitan Police has indicated that they may investigate.
It is Mr. Johnson’s latest, most dangerous, disclosure. It raises doubts about Johnson’s truthfulness and fuels allegations that he and his top aides don’t follow the rules they impose upon the public. There is speculation that Johnson could be facing an internal leadership challenge due to the year’s constant turmoil.
“He can run but he can’t hide,” the deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party, Angela Rayner, declared on Tuesday in Parliament, where the prime minister dispatched a lower-level official in his place to take questions about the party. “The public have already drawn their own conclusions.”
Mr. Johnson and his Conservative Party have been overwhelmingly popular in the polls despite almost weekly reports of illegal, after-work celebrations at Downing Street. The allegations, analysts say, have cut through the typical scandal-of-the-moment furor that normally fades with the next day’s headlines, resonating with a British populace that still vividly remembers the pandemic sacrifices it was asked to make.
This crisis is a great escape artist like Johnson. It shows no signs of stopping. Johnson is not only a master at merrymaking, but also faces scandals over the extravagant interior decoration of his Downing Street apartment as well as his inept defense of a Conservative lawmaker who is ethically challenged.
In December, nearly 100 Conservative lawmakers rebelled against Mr. Johnson’s new Covid restrictions, fueling speculation that his grip on power was at risk. However, the crisis subsided over Christmas and many Conservative lawmakers praised Johnson for refusing to allow tighter curbs.
Analysts concluded that he had bought himself some breathing room until May’s local elections, which will be a huge test of how much the opposition to the parties has hurt electoral support for the Tories.
The parties will likely remain front and centre for at least a few more weeks, or longer, if there is an investigation by the police. Mr. Johnson’s government also faces economic pressure because of inflation and tax increases, which are driving up the cost of living for millions of Britons.
“That’s going to dominate government business and politics this year, much more than Covid,” said Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst at the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group. “So, Johnson is very much swimming against the tide. Things look very bad for him, but’s he not done for yet.”
The latest scandal, the disclosure of the party on May 20, 2020, came in a blog post by Mr. Johnson’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, who has waged a one-man campaign to discredit the prime minister since he was fired by him late that year. Mr. Cummings said he did not attend the gathering — though he did embarrass the government with his own violation of lockdown rules — and raised questions about the wisdom of holding it, as did another senior adviser in the prime minister’s office.
The British broadcaster ITV published what it said was an email invitation to the party from Mr. Johnson’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds. In it, he said, “we thought it would be nice to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden this evening.”
BBC reported that two witnesses claimed they saw the prime minster, who had just suffered a life-threatening Covid case, and his wife at the party. It happened on a day when Britain reported 363 deaths from Covid and a government minister, Oliver Dowden, told the public, “You can meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor public place.”
Sue Gray, a senior civil service official, is investigating the allegations. She replaced Simon Case as cabinet secretary after he was forced out by claims that he had violated the rules. Opinion polls indicate that the disclosures regarding the parties have drained support from the Tories and Mr. Johnson in particular, even before Ms. Gray finishes up her report.
“Hardly anybody believes what Boris Johnson has to say on the matter,” Chris Curtis, head of political polling at Opinium Research, wrote on Twitter. “In fact, more people think the moon landings were faked than think the prime minister is telling the truth.”
Johnson has proven to be a remarkably resilient politician. Analysts say that many voters have long since dismissed Johnson’s apparent relationship to truth. The problem is that he could lose his efforts to restructure his government and calm the restive backbenchers of his party.
It’s not for lack of trying. Monday saw the government unveil a new policy to improve its approach to building safety. Later this month, one of Mr. Johnson’s allies, Michael Gove, plans to flesh out the government’s flagship project to spread prosperity to areas in the middle and north of England that feel neglected.
“Between now and the spring is really his only opportunity to reboot his message and his premiership ahead of a large number of local elections,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent.
Instead of keeping the spotlight focused on these issues, Mr. Johnson will be asked questions about whether he violated lockdown rules and whether he misled Parliament by denying it. On Dec. 8, he said, “I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and no Covid rules were broken.”
If the Labour Party cements its polling lead, pressure is likely to grow among Mr. Johnson’s backbenchers for a no-confidence vote, which could force him from power. It is difficult to remove a sitting prime minister, especially one like Mr. Johnson who won an 80-seat majority barely two years ago.
But few issues can make the public feel alienated like the double standard of politicians who party while telling others to stay at home.
“If the prime minister was at this party, then his position would be untenable,” said Lobby Akinnola, a spokesman for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, a group that represents families who have lost relatives in the pandemic, in a statement. “He’d have lost all moral authority to lead the country, after breaking his own rules that the rest of us followed, often at great sacrifice.”
Source: NY Times