U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought to head off a growing revolt within his own party, offering an apology for attending what he called a “work” event in the Downing Street garden during lockdown, when outside parties were illegal.
“There were things we simply did not get right,” he told the House of Commons on Wednesday. “I must take responsibility.”
The rare apology came after Johnson and his officials had spent days stonewalling after ITV reported that the premier’s senior adviser had invited about 100 people to a drinks party in the No. 10 garden in May 2020. Such gatherings were banned at the time as the U.K. battled the first wave of COVID-19 infections.
Johnson said he believed the event was a work event, and he went into the Downing Street garden to thank groups of staff.
“With hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside,” he said. “I regret very much we did not do things differently that evening.”
Members of Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party had warned the prime minister his silence was untenable and that his position would be at risk unless he gave a clear account of what happened — and especially if it turned out he had lied about the party and others reported to have happened that year.
The allegations, which have dominated newspaper front pages and driven a steep decline in support for the Conservaties in opinion polls, represent a significant moment of peril at the worst possible time for Johnson. The prime minister had hoped to begin 2022 with a reset after a turbulent end to last year, which culminated in a damaging loss in a special election.
Instead, Johnson found himself answering questions on alleged law-breaking by a former director of public prosecutions in a packed House of Commons. Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer had been released from self-isolation after contracting COVID-19 just hours before the critical session.
“That apology was pretty worthless,” Starmer said as he called for Johnson to resign. “Why does the prime minister still think the rules don’t apply to him?”
The alleged garden party on May 20, 2020 is the latest in a string of allegations about events and gatherings in Johnson’s office.
Pandemic curbs in place at the time meant activities were heavily restricted, allowing people to meet only one other person outdoors in a public place. On the day of the alleged gathering, which occurred on the hottest day of the year so far, Johnson’s government had urged the public to stick to the rules.
Johnson is in the unusual position of living and working in the same complex of buildings and gardens in Downing Street, but newspaper reports of staff heading to the local supermarket to buy rose wine, make it difficult for Johnson to defend the event as a work meeting.
The prime minister has so far insisted the issue of whether rule-breaking occurred is a matter for Sue Gray, the senior civil servant who is investigating a series of reported parties in Downing Street and elsewhere across government.
Yet matters could escalate quickly. Johnson’s spokesman confirmed Tuesday that police are talking to officials, and said Gray’s investigation would be paused in the event of a police inquiry.
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