The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Four of Boris Johnson’s top aides quit, while ‘Partygate’ scandal rocks Downing Street

Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street with Policy Director Munira Mirza on Dec. 15, 2020. (Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON — Four top aides to embattled British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced their resignations on Thursday, as the British government continued to be rocked by a scandal dubbed “Partygate.”

During a chaotic night, commentators were attempting to figure out who jumped ship — and who was pushed.

Johnson’s office is under investigation for a string of gatherings over the past two years that are alleged to have violated the government’s own coronavirus restrictions. A report published this week by senior civil servant Sue Gray found that there were “failures of leadership and judgment” at 10 Downing Street. The London Metropolitan Police are looking into 12 of the most serious alleged breaches.

One of the staffers who announced on Thursday that he was leaving has been directly implicated in Partygate. Martin Reynolds, the prime minister’s principal private secretary, was responsible for an email encouraging Downing Street staffers to “bring your own booze” to a party on May 20, 2020 — at a time when the public was banned by law from meeting up with more than one person outside households.

Also announcing their resignations were Communications Director Jack Doyle, Chief of Staff Dan Rosenfield and Policy Director Munira Mirza.

Mirza, a longtime ally of Johnson, made a point that she was leaving on principle. In her resignation letter, she said Johnson needed to apologize for an “inappropriate and partisan” slur of opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer.

In Parliament on Monday, when he was supposed to be addressing Gray’s report, Johnson accused Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions, of failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile, a television personality who was revealed after his death in 2011 to be one of Britain’s worst child abusers. There is no evidence to back up this allegation. Johnson later said he wanted to “clarify” his remarks after “a lot of people have got very hot under the collar,” but he did not offer an apology to Starmer.

Mirza said Johnson was “a better man than many of your detractors will ever understand,” but she said it was “so desperately sad that you let yourself down by making a scurrilous accusation against the leader of the opposition.”

Asked about the Savile comments at a news conference, Rishi Sunak, the British chancellor, said, “Being honest, I wouldn’t have said it.” As one of the politicians seen as a possible successor to Johnson, his remarks raised eyebrows. He also said, “I’m glad that the prime minister clarified what he meant.”

Alice Lilly, a senior researcher at the Institute for Government, an independent think tank, said that aside from Mirza, it seemed as if the exodus was an attempt to “clear house and make some of the changes” that he had promised earlier in the week. She said the big challenge for Johnson going forward will be “whether he can persuade people to go and work in Number 10.”

On Monday, after Gray’s report was published, Johnson pledged to reorganize 10 Downing Street and said he would act swiftly.