LONDON — Boris Johnson went into the House of Commons on Wednesday and apologized. And wiggled. And apologized some more — amid shouts from the opposition that he is a liar and should resign — that he attended a “BYOB” garden party at his own home during the height of coronavirus lockdown in May 2020.
“For 25 minutes,” Johnson said. To thank the staff.
After saying he had no knowledge of lockdown parties at 10 Downing Street, the British prime minister admitted that he had attended a “bring your own booze” catered gathering, organized by his private secretary, at the height of the first coronavirus wave, when ordinary citizens were forced to forgo weddings, funerals, school, office work and, certainly, parties.
In his long life in journalism and politics, as a freewheeling columnist at the Telegraph, as backslapping London mayor and now prime minister during a deadly pandemic, Johnson has faced repeated challenges to his veracity — about his newspaper articles, his romantic affairs, his cocaine use, his assurances to the queen and, most recently, his solicitation for donations to pay for the renovation of his flat.
This one might prove the most difficult.
Earlier this week, ITV news revealed an email invitation for the May 20, 2020, garden party from Johnson’s private secretary, Martin Reynolds, to more than 100 staff members at Downing Street, which, like the White House, serves as both office and residence for the country’s leader.
“Hi all, after what has been an incredibly busy period 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,” it read. “Please join us from 6pm and bring your own booze!”
After the news broke, Johnson smirked — and dodged.
On Wednesday, under tremendous pressure from his own Conservative Party, he came clean.
“I want to apologize,” Johnson began, in the packed chamber. “I know millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months. I know the anguish that they have been through, unable to mourn their relatives, unable to live their lives as they want or to do the things they love. And I know the rage they feel with me, and with the government I lead, when they think that in Downing Street itself, they think the rules are not being followed by the people who make the rules.”
Johnson said he attended for a short while.
“In hindsight, I should have sent everyone back inside, and I should have found some other way to thank them,” the prime minister said.
Staring down the prime minister, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, said, “that apology was pretty worthless, wasn’t it?”
“After months of deceit and deception, the pathetic spectacle of a man who’s run out of road,” Starmer said before asking, “is he finally going to do the decent thing and resign?”
Starmer said that the British public thinks Johnson is “lying through his teeth.”
“So we have the prime minister attending Downing Street parties, a clear breach of the rules. We got the prime minister putting forward a series of ridiculous denials, which he knows are untrue, a clear breach of the ministerial code. That code says: ministers who knowingly mislead parliament will be expected to offer their resignation.”
To these many calls from the opposition to resign, Johnson simply said that he would “certainly respond as appropriate” once an investigation by the career civil servant, Sue Gray, has been made — freeing him from responding to many of the angry lawmakers’ questions.
According to Adam Wagner, a human rights lawyer and commentator, Johnson’s apology was carefully worded to make it clear that he didn’t realize the event was a social gathering.
“The apology — when read carefully — was to the millions of people who ‘wouldn’t see it in that way,’” he tweeted. “This is very much about his personal liability — he is implicitly denying he knew what the event was, had seen the email or had anything to do with it. Because here’s the key point: on the wording of email (‘bring your own booze’) this couldn’t technically have been a work event.”
The front pages of the Wednesday papers would not make comfortable viewing for Johnson. And, worryingly for the prime minister, it wasn’t just the press that was skeptical of his Conservative Party, known as the Tories.
“Is the party over for the PM?” asked the right-leaning Daily Mail. “Johnson losing Tory support” was on the front page of the Daily Telegraph, where Johnson used to work.
Johnson is known as a Teflon politician, with controversies sliding off him that would have ended other politicians’ careers.
And analysts say that some of this wiggling and winking is simply “baked in” with Johnson.
Voters who elected him knew that he was once fired from the Times of London for fabricating a quote. He was also sacked from a post in the Conservative Party after he lied about having an affair, calling the allegations “an inverted pyramid of piffle.” A YouGov poll from the day he became prime minister showed that many thought he was strong and likable but also untrustworthy and dishonest.
Tim Bale, a politics professor from Queen Mary, University of London, tweeted, “You can’t fall from grace when there’s no grace to fall from.”
But the accusations that there was one set of rules for the lawmakers and another for everyone else have nonetheless struck a chord with the British public, who have their own personal, vivid experiences of hardship in lockdown.
Many on social media have posted photos of what they were doing on May 20, 2020, which have painted poignant vignettes of loneliness and isolation. Others, including lawmakers in Parliament, have shared heartbreaking stories about losing loved ones and not being able to visit them in the hospital, given the rules at the time.
May 20 was the hottest day of 2020, reaching 82 degrees Fahrenheit in some parts of the country. It would have been a fine day for a garden drinks reception, only that was not allowed, as Oliver Dowden, a senior Conservative politician, reminded the nation in a news conference at Downing Street, less than an hour before the gathering for drinks there.
Dowden told the country: “You can meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor, public place provided that you stay two meters apart.”
Although Johnson is a cat with many lives, it’s unclear how many he has left. He has faced a string of controversies in recent weeks: including his handling of a “sleaze scandal” involving an ally who stepped down for breaking lobbying rules and a controversy over the funding of renovations for his Downing Street apartment. In what was seen as a bad sign for Johnson, his Conservative Party lost a Parliament seat last month in an area long considered a Conservative stronghold. His party had held the seat for nearly 200 years.
The next general election is due in 2024, but the Conservative Party is known for casting aside its leaders when they no longer seem like vote winners — although that didn’t appear imminent.
Some Conservatives have weighed in. Christian Wakeford, a Tory lawmaker, tweeted his disgust before the parliamentary question-and-answer session.
“How do you defend the indefensible?” he wrote. “You can’t! It’s embarrassing and what’s worse is it further erodes trust in politics when it’s already low. We need openness, trust and honesty in our politics now more than ever and that starts from the top!”