British prime minister Boris Johnson. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
A long-awaited report into claims of lockdown-breaking parties at British prime minister Boris Johnson’s offices was published in part on Monday (31), criticising “failures of leadership” that allowed events to go ahead.
Political and public anger at the revelations put Johnson’s position as leader under threat, but senior civil servant Sue Gray has been forced not to go into detail on all events due to a separate police probe.
After interviewing more than 70 people about 16 events held in 2020 and last year, Gray said what she could say was “extremely limited” owing to the Metropolitan police’s intervention.
But she found that given the demands the government was making of the public to fight the spread of coronavirus, “some of the behaviour surrounding these gatherings is difficult to justify”.
Some represented a “serious failure” to observe the high standards expected of those working in government, and “too little thought” was given to how appropriate the events were at the time and how they would be perceived.
“There were failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No 10 (Downing Street) and the Cabinet Office at different times,” Gray wrote in her 12-page report.
“Some of the events should not have been allowed to take place. Other events should not have been allowed to develop as they did.”
Gray also criticised the drinking culture at the heart of government in the report, which saw her examine emails, text messages, photos and Downing Street’s entry and exit logs.
Johnson’s immediate future had been in doubt until the Met police said last week it was also looking into 12 of the 16 events for possible breaches of coronavirus regulations.
Scotland Yard’s request for Gray not to publish her report in full has given Johnson some breathing space while detectives conduct their own enquiries.
A copy of the redacted report was delivered to Downing Street on Monday morning and Johnson is due to respond to it in parliament at 1530 GMT.
Johnson’s opponents have accused him of misleading parliament by insisting the events at Downing Street were within the rules at the time and were work-related.
Ministers found to have misled MPs are normally expected to resign. But on a visit on Monday, Johnson told reporters: “I stick absolutely to what I’ve said in the past.”
– Room for manoeuvre –
Weeks of revelations in the British media since December have seen leaked photographs and emails indicating repeated breaches of social distancing rules the government set.
They include a cocktail party in May 2020 in the Downing Street garden, as well as Christmas celebrations, and also a boozy get-together before Prince Philip’s funeral in April.
Details of that event, at which staff reportedly brought a suitcase-full of alcohol and danced until the small hours, caused outrage given the socially distanced memorial.
An enduring image of the funeral was of the Queen, sat alone in the chapel at Windsor Castle, mourning her husband of 73 years.
Downing Street later apologised to the monarch.
The revelations have posed the greatest threat to Johnson’s position since he became prime minister in 2019 on a wave of support for his populist Brexit agenda.
A handful of his own Conservative party MPs are on record as saying they had no confidence in his leadership. More have been expected to join them.
Fifty-four Tory MPs are required to force a no-confidence vote but many have been keeping their counsel until the Gray report comes out.
With only a limited report released by Gray, and the police inquiry potentially lasting months, that has allowed Johnson to regroup his supporters and get back on the front foot.
In recent days he has talked tough against Russia in the simmering tensions with Ukraine, and is keen to push on with his post-Brexit agenda.