LONDON – Prime Minister Boris Johnson has presided over a disorderly workplace where rampant violations of coronavirus restrictions were taking place, according to a much-anticipated government inquiry, released Wednesday, that became a moment of reckoning for the scandal-stricken British leader.
The report of a senior official, Sue Gray, was littered with accounts of nighttime booze-fueled revelry in Downing Street: scattered wine bottles, a thumping karaoke machine, a broken swing, and senior officials cheering for sociability, even as they were private. annoyed, it could create a public relations problem at a time when they had forced fellow Brits to isolate lockdowns.
But the report contained no explosive new revelations about Mr Johnson’s behavior. It even credited Downing Street with changing some of its practices to reshape an office culture that Mrs Gray had denounced in an earlier edited version of her report as bereft of leadership and marinated in alcohol.
For Mr Johnson, whose political future hangs in the balance after months of embarrassing reports about the parties, the report didn’t look like the fatal blow many once warned of. While he faced renewed calls from the opposition to resign, the ranks of his conservative party were relatively muted. Mr Johnson, analysts said, will live to fight another day.
“I am humbled and I have learned a lesson,” the prime minister said in parliament, with a signature mix of remorse and defiance.
He rejected claims that he had lied to lawmakers by denying that parties in Downing Street had broken the rules. That is a damaging claim, as misleading Parliament in Britain is normally regarded as a right of dismissal. And he defended his participation in farewell parties, saying that he only thanked loyal, hard-working employees for their service during the pandemic.
In her report, Ms Gray concluded: “Whatever the original intent, what happened at many of these meetings and the way they evolved was not in line with Covid guidelines at the time.” She said 83 people broke the rules at rallies, with some drinking heavily, fighting with each other and damaging property.
The report included photos of Mr Johnson raising a glass at a birthday party held in his honor (he was later fined for it by the police). But it didn’t shed any light on a potentially more incriminating meeting in his apartment. Witnesses reported hearing Abba music blasting from the windows. Ms Gray said she had suspended her investigation into it because the Metropolitan Police had opened their own investigation.
“It was never going to be the hard-hitting independent investigation many had hoped for because it was commissioned by an employee of the Prime Minister,” said Tim Bale, a political science professor at Queen Mary, University of London. Johnson, he said, “gave the job to someone who wasn’t a patsy but was still an established name and who decided not to view her role as an end to his career.”
Opposition leaders seized on the findings to try to spark new outrage against the prime minister. The Labor Party leader, Keir Starmer, described them as a “monument to the pride and arrogance of a government that believed it was one rule for them and another rule for everyone else.”
But Mr. Starmer was somewhat hampered by his own lockdown-related woes. Police in Durham are investigating whether he broke the rules by attending an Indian food and beer dinner with members of his party. He reiterated that he would resign if the police fined him.
The Scottish National Party leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford, described the atmosphere in Downing Street as so unruly that the police had to be called in. “In the middle, the prime minister who orchestrated it, himself grabbing a glass to toast was the partygoers,” he said.
The release of Ms. Gray’s report was once seen as the culmination of a saga that began in November with the first media reports from parties. As the scandal spiraled out of control, conservative lawmakers began filing letters calling for a vote of no confidence from Mr Johnson. His allies worried that a series of damning revelations in the report could turn that trickle of letters into a torrent.
But events have changed since January in ways that have benefited Mr Johnson. The Russian invasion of Ukraine overshadowed talk of rogue states in government offices. The prime minister positioned Britain as a staunch supporter of Ukraine and befriended the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
To impeach Mr Johnson, 54 Conservative lawmakers would have to demand a no-confidence vote. That number has yet to be reached and even if it did, Mr Johnson would need the support of just a simple majority of the roughly 360 Conservative lawmakers in parliament to keep his job.
On Thursday, the conservative benches behind Johnson quickly drained, suggesting few lawmakers had the courage to defend him. But only a single Tory member, Tobias Ellwood, spoke out against Mr Johnson in parliament, and his opposition to the Prime Minister is well established.
The unwieldy mechanics of the investigation also helped Mr. Johnson. Just as Ms Gray was poised to release her report in January, police announced they were finally opening their own investigation into the social gatherings and asked her to remove names or specific details from what she published.
With the police investigation closed, Downing Street has released the full report, which offers a revealing look at the work-hard, play-hard culture. At a party held on the eve of the funeral of Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, staff members drank heavily and damaged a children’s playground equipment in the garden. The last guests left after 4 pm. mr. Johnson was away for the weekend.
Understand Britain’s ‘Partygate’ Scandal
Unrest in Downing Street. A steady stream of revelations about parties violating lockdown rules has entangled Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a scandal that has threatened his hold on power. Here’s what you need to know:
After another gathering, a holiday party in 2020, the cleaning crew reported that red wine had been spilled on the floor. At a meeting in June 2020 there were speeches, alcohol, food and music. At least one person got sick, there was an argument between two others and the last employee didn’t leave until after 3 am
There were internal debates about the wisdom of partying during the pandemic. When Lee Cain, then the communications director for Mr. Johnson, was invited to a meeting in May 2020, wrote to his colleagues that “a 200-person invitation to a drink in the No. 10 garden is somewhat of a communication risk in today’s environment.” According to the report, those concerns were ignored.
Mr Johnson attended the party for about 30 minutes. Later, his then private secretary, Martin Reynolds, texted another adviser to the news media, saying, “better than them concentrating on our drinks (which we seem to get away with).”
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Mr Johnson said he had apologized to prison staff, who were mistreated by his aides, the report said. But he did not immediately answer whether he had asked Ms Gray not to release the final report of her investigation, as reported by the Times of London. He also gave no details about the party being held at his apartment.
Johnson seemed even more intent on changing the subject, stressing his determination to fight rising food and fuel prices. The cabinet is expected to announce a new package of emergency measures on Thursday.
Faced with a hodgepodge of problems – rising inflation, a looming recession, two tough parliamentary elections and falling opinion polls – Mr Johnson said he was still vulnerable.
“Of course I understand why people are outraged,” Mr Johnson said in response to a reporter who quoted a poll that showed three out of five Britons wanted him to resign. “Given everything that’s going on, it’s my job to keep going.”