Boris Johnson, Under Fire, Apologizes for Pandemic Party – The New York Times

LONDON — Facing a potentially lethal threat to his leadership, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain on Wednesday offered a contrite apology for attending a Downing Street garden party while his country was under a strict coronavirus lockdown.

Mr. Johnson, who had not previously admitted to being at the party, acknowledged that his conduct had offended the public. But he insisted he thought the gathering was a work event that did not breach government regulations on social mixing during the early days of the pandemic — a claim that provoked incredulity among critics and did little to quell the unrest in the ranks of his Conservative Partly.

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

“There were things we simply did not get right,” Mr. Johnson added, “and I must take that responsibility.”

The apology might have brought the prime minister some political breathing room, analysts said. Yet it did little to dispel the thunderclouds over him, with the opposition Labour Party demanding his resignation and Conservative backbenchers fearing a public backlash. His fate, some said, now hinged on an internal investigation of the May 2020 party and of other social gatherings.

Top officials of the Labour Party were scathing in their condemnation. “The party is over, prime minister,” the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, declared. “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 resign?’”

In a significant setback to Mr. Johnson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglas Ross, also called on him to stand aside. “Regrettably, I have to say his position is no longer tenable,” Mr. Ross told Sky News, adding that he spoke to the prime minister on Wednesday afternoon to explain his position.

Earlier, Mr. Johnson asked lawmakers to wait for the findings of the investigation, led by a senior civil servant, Sue Gray. But he looked beleaguered and off balance under a torrent of questions from Mr. Starmer, a former public prosecutor. There were none of the jokes, smirks or quick-witted rejoinders that have often sustained Mr. Johnson through difficult moments in public life.

The prime minister’s defense of the party as a “work event” was noteworthy because it could exonerate him of charges that he misled Parliament, the kind of transgression that would increase pressure on the prime minister to resign.

He said he viewed the B.Y.O.B. gathering, a month after he himself suffered a bout of Covid, as a chance to thank staff members for their efforts during the initial phase of the pandemic. That explanation, however, seemed at odds with a recently surfaced email invitation from his private secretary, Martin Reynolds, which described the party as an opportunity “to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks.”

Mr. Johnson said he now understood that the public, who were being told at the time not to meet more than a single person outside their households, would view this as an unacceptable double standard.

“With hindsight,” he said, “I should have sent everybody back inside. I should have found some other way to thank them.”

Opposition lawmakers greeted that explanation with catcalls, while the Tory benches behind Mr. Johnson were largely stone faced. One of the prime minister’s problems is that his admission came after weeks of misleading statements about whether there were any such gatherings at Downing Street.

On Dec. 8, he declared in the House of Commons, “I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken.” A week later, he told reporters, “I can tell you once again that I certainly broke no rules.”

On Dec. 20, after The Guardian newspaper published a photograph of the prime minister mixing with colleagues over wine and cheese in his garden during a lockdown, he said, “Those were people at work, talking about work.”

Unlike other ethics questions that have trailed Mr. Johnson throughout his career, the furor over parties has struck a chord with the public. People vividly remember the grim months early in the pandemic, when they were told to isolate at home, forbidden from visiting elderly parents, even if they became ill.

And many questions about the party remain unanswered. Mr. Johnson’s aides said he had not seen the email asking guests to bring their own alcohol. But they would not say how he learned about the event; whether he himself brought a bottle or had a drink; and why his wife Carrie Johnson, then his fiancee, attended.

Mr. Johnson, a 57-year-old onetime journalist, won the support of the Conservative rank-and-file largely because of his record in winning elections, and some of that residual support remains. Conor Burns, a Tory junior minister, told the BBC on Wednesday, “I have absolute confidence and belief in Boris Johnson, and he is determined to restore the trust.”

But there are signs that his support within the party is teetering. Roger Gale a Conservative lawmaker and vocal critic of Mr. Johnson, told the BBC that the prime minister had misled Parliament and was “politically a dead man walking.”

For Mr. Johnson to be forced out, 54 Conservative lawmakers would have to write to Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, which represents Tory backbenchers, and call for a vote of no confidence in Mr. Johnson. Those communications are private, so it is not known how many requests have been sent, though analysts say they believe the number is probably still low.

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

Even without a leadership contest, lawmakers and government officials can put pressure on an unpopular prime minister in other ways — for example if ministers resign from the government or members of the cabinet rebel.

The best hope for Mr. Johnson is that he can weather the immediate storm and that the inquiry by Ms. Gray is less conclusive than the prime minister’s critics would wish. In those circumstances, Mr. Johnson might be able to fight on, though he might have to sacrifice some of his senior aides.

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

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

“Would it therefore be better,” he wrote, “for the Party to take the hit of a Prime Ministerial resignation now — and plunge into the uncertainties that would follow — rather than prolong the pain?”

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Boris Johnson, Under Fire, Apologizes for Pandemic Party – The New York Times

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