LONDON — A long-awaited internal investigation squarely blamed the top leadership in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government for lockdown-breaking parties in and around Downing Street, including a string of bashes with “excessive alcohol consumption” and one that prompted an official to boast, in a text, about living beyond pandemic rules.
While pubs across Britain were closed for business, the report suggests Downing Street served as a kind of after-hours joint for staffers, with some parties going until nearly dawn.
There was loud music, dancing, quiz games. And booze. Often lots of it.
At a gathering on June 18, 2020, one person “was sick,” vomiting from so much drinking, and two others engaged in a “minor altercation," a fight.
Downing Street staffers were accused of mocking security staff who told them to quiet down — even as they left rubbish bins overflowing with trash for custodians to deal with. After one party, cleaners had to scrub red wine stains from a wall.
The 59-page report covered 16 gatherings — held between May 15, 2020, and April 16, 2021 — at the prime minister’s Downing Street office, his official residence upstairs or the nearby cabinet office.
“Many of these events should not have been allowed to happen,” the report concluded.
Gray wrote: “The senior leadership at the center, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture.” She added that some of the more junior civil servants “believed that their involvement in some of these events was permitted given the attendance of senior leaders.”
The report included nine photos of Johnson, including a series of him raising a glass in a toast on Nov. 13, 2020. Beside him, the table is littered with empty and half-empty bottles of wine and gin.
Although Johnson is expected to keep his job, for now, the report has fueled renewed anger about elites who consider themselves above the rules.
Speaking in the House of Commons hours after the report was published on Wednesday, Johnson said he was “humbled” by the revelations and has “learned a lesson.” He said he took “full responsibility for everything that took place,” but it was time to “move on and focus on the priorities of the British people.”
He added that he was “appalled” by some of the report’s details. He said his attendance at some staff farewell parties was brief, and that he was “surprised and disappointed” to learn that drinking continued into the night.
At a gathering on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral, some partied past 4 a.m., and staffers broke a toy swing that belonged to Johnson’s toddler son, the report noted.
When news of the parties came to light, Johnson repeatedly told Parliament that he believed no parties had taken place and that no rules were broken. He still faces a parliamentary investigation into whether he misled lawmakers with those statements.
At a Wednesday afternoon news conference from Downing Street, the British leader was asked directly by a reporter, "Are you a liar?'
The prime minister insisted that he truly believed no rules were breached when he made that assertion to Parliament.
He defended himself by saying that staffers were “working very hard, very long hours” and that he believed “these were work events. They were part of my job.”
The lockdown restrictions allowed for exceptions for gatherings that were essential for work purposes. Johnson called stepping into the parties to bid farewell to departing staffers “one of the essential duties of leadership.”
But at least some of the attendees seem to have realized they were breaking their own rules. In a WhatsApp exchange, a top civil servant wrote that “we seem to have got away with” a party on May 20, 2020.
The highly anticipated report — British journalists were calling Wednesday “Sue Gray Day” — followed a separate police investigation into a dozen of the gatherings. The police determined that 83 people violated lockdown rules, including the prime minister, his wife, Carrie, and Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
Johnson is the first British prime minister to be found to have broken the law while in office. Even still, some critics suggested the police let him off too lightly.
Opposition leader Keir Starmer said Wednesday that the Gray report was a testament to the “hubris and the arrogance of a government that believed it was one rule for them and another rule for everyone else.” He drew a contrast between himself and Johnson by reiterating a pledge to step down if police find he broke lockdown rules in a separate scandal dubbed “beergate.”
The prime minister has made clear that he has no intention of resigning. And members of his Conservative Party are not maneuvering in any great numbers to oust him as leader. Analysts say this is in part because there’s no obvious successor within the party.
Johnson’s allies have defended his resolve, citing among the reasons Russia’s war in Ukraine, where the U.K. has played an outsize role in military support.
But the Partygate scandal has dented support for the Conservatives, who suffered losses in local elections this month.
Polls show that the majority of Brits say Johnson should step down, and his popularity rating has tumbled since the lockdown breaches were revealed.
“When you look at his approval ratings now, they are not the kind of approval ratings that a prime minister normally comes back from,” said Chris Curtis, head of political polling at Opinium Research.
Curtis said the Conservative Party had lost its reputation for economic competence, with fuel and food prices surging. Inflation is now at 9 percent, a 40-year high.
“But the biggest thing that has ruined Boris Johnson’s reputation is undoubtedly Partygate,” Curtis said. He said that if there were an election now, polls suggest that Johnson and the Conservative Party would be out of government.
The fact that the opposition Labour Party can see a route to power is a remarkable change of events from the 2019 election, when Johnson helped Conservatives win an 80-seat majority.
Johnson, though, has also shown he can ride out controversies that would topple most politicians.