Boris Johnson faces calls to quit after lockdown party apology

  • Published
Media caption,

"I offer my heartfelt apologies": Watch Boris Johnson admit to attending the No 10 party in May 2020

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has apologised for attending a "bring your own booze" party during the first coronavirus lockdown.

He told MPs that even if the event in the Downing Street garden "could be said technically to fall within the guidance" he should have realised how it would look to the public.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called on the prime minister to resign.

Mr Johnson is also under pressure from his own MPs over the May 2020 party.

Senior backbencher and select committee chairman William Wragg said the PM's position is "untenable" and he should resign before senior civil servant Sue Gray publishes her report on Downing Street parties.

Mr Wragg told BBC Radio 4's PM programme: "I don't think it should be left to the findings of a civil servant to determine the future of the prime minister and indeed who governs this country."

After Prime Minister's Questions, Mr Johnson toured the Commons tea rooms, where MPs gather, to shore up support among his backbenchers.

If 54 of them send letters to the 1922 committee - the influential backbench group which runs Tory leadership contests - it will trigger a challenge.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, an MP and MSP, said he would be writing to the committee because he believed the PM's position was "no longer tenable".

"He is the prime minister, it is his government that put these rules in place, and he has to be held to account for his actions," said Mr Ross.

A senior Tory source said Mr Johnson looked "battered and crestfallen" as he spoke to his MPs, and that he had "lost what made him so successful with his party".

Backbencher Sir Roger Gale - a frequent critic of Mr Johnson - said that politically the PM was now "a dead man walking".

Minister Rachel Maclean warned there were consequences for those who have broken the law regarding coronavirus restrictions.

Speaking to BBC Two's Politics Live, she said: 'The law of the land applies to everybody…including the prime minister. The people that make the laws are also the subject of the laws and that's why we've got this due process of this inquiry find out exactly what went on, and if any laws were broken there will be consequences."

Media caption,

Watch as Sir Keir Starmer asks if the PM will do the decent thing and resign

But other Tory MPs rallied behind the prime minister, with Sir Christopher Chope saying he had "never heard such an abject apology" in his time in parliament, and he believed it was "genuinely sincere".

Cabinet ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab and Health Secretary Sajid Javid, have also defended the PM, with Mr Raab saying he had given a "clear account" of what happened and had apologised.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who has been visiting a pharmaceutical company in the West Country, has not been available for interview.

The Commons fell silent at the start of Prime Minister's Questions, as Mr Johnson admitted he had been at the Downing Street party on 20 May 2020 for about 25 minutes, so that he could "thank groups of staff" for their hard work.

He said: "I believed implicitly that this was a work event."

But he added: "With hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside.

"I should have found some other way to thank them, and I should have recognised that - even if it could have been said technically to fall within the guidance - there would be millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way."

Later, a Downing Street spokesman said the prime minister did not see the email inviting staff to drinks on 20 May 2020.

Mr Johnson sat stony-faced as opposition MPs called for him to quit as prime minister, or for his own MPs to force him out.

In all, the PM faced eight calls to stand down during the Commons question session. Tory MPs, by and large, used the session to ask questions about constituency projects and coronavirus.

Sir Keir Starmer said: "There we have it. After months of deceit and deception, the pathetic spectacle of a man who has run out of road.

"His defence...that he didn't realise he was at a party is so ridiculous that it's actually offensive to the British public.

"He's finally been forced to admit what everyone knew, that when the whole country was locked down he was hosting boozing parties in Downing Street. Is he now going to do the decent thing and resign?"

Mr Johnson said he understood the "rage" of people who had "made huge sacrifices throughout this pandemic" at the thought "that people in Downing Street were not following those rules".

"I regret the way the event I have described was handled. I bitterly regret it. And wish that we could have done things differently."

I don't think the prime minister's statement makes the issue go away at all.

He tried to strike a different tone today - there was no smirk, no swagger, none of the usual Johnson gags.

His admission may have bought him some time, but he is basically pleading with his party to wait for the inquiry to conclude before they make their mind up.

However, some people will see this as being a non-apology apology.

Mr Johnson urged MPs to wait for the outcome of an inquiry by senior civil servant Sue Gray into alleged Covid law-breaking in Downing Street, which he said "will report as soon as possible".

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said that if Mr Johnson had "no sense of shame", then the Tory backbenchers "must act to remove him".

Media caption,

Watch the SNP's Ian Blackford tell Boris Johnson: "Will his Tory MPs be forced to show him the door?"

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey also called on the PM to resign - and has written to the Metropolitan Police to ask them to investigate Mr Johnson's attendance at the 20 May party.

The government has faced intense pressure over events held in an around Downing Street.

Boris Johnson announced a plan to take the “first careful steps" out of the lockdown that began in March 2020. But he said people should continue to "obey the rules on social distancing and to enforce those rules we will increase the fines for the small minority who break them”.

Legal restrictions at the time said you could not leave your house without a reasonable excuse and government guidance was that you could meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor setting while exercising.

A photo from May 2020 showed the prime minister and his staff with bottles of wine and a cheeseboard in the Downing Street garden. When asked about it, Boris Johnson said, “those people were at work talking about work”.

About 100 people were invited by email to “socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden” on behalf of the prime minister’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds.

Witnesses told the BBC the PM and his wife were among about 30 people who attended.

Boris Johnson has confirmed he attended the event, saying he was there for 25 minutes and “believed implicitly that this was a work event”.

A gathering took place in the Cabinet Office to mark the departure of a No 10 private secretary.

On Boris Johnson’s birthday, up to 30 people gathered in the Cabinet Room at No 10 to present the prime minister with a birthday cake and sing Happy Birthday, according to a report by ITV News.

No 10 said staff had “gathered briefly" to "wish the prime minister a happy birthday", adding that he had been there "for less than 10 minutes”.

Rules at the time banned most indoor gatherings involving more than two people.

Boris Johnson announced plans for a “significant return to normality" in England by Christmas "through targeted, local action” instead of national lockdowns.

But he added that the timetable relied on “every one of us staying alert and acting responsibly”.

With cases of coronavirus rising again, the prime minister told people in England that “we are once again asking you to stay at home” as a new national lockdown began.

He said people should only leave their homes “for work if you can’t work from home, for education, and for essential activities and emergencies”. Indoor gatherings with other households were banned, unless they were for work purposes.

Sources told the BBC that Downing Street staff members attended a gathering with Carrie Johnson in the flat where she and the prime minister live. A spokesman for Mrs Johnson denies the party took place.

A leaving event was held for No 10 aide, Cleo Watson, where people were drinking, and Mr Johnson made a speech, according to sources.

The second national lockdown ended after four weeks but Boris Johnson replaced those restrictions with “tough tiers to keep this virus down”.

London was placed in tier two, which banned two or more people from different households from meeting indoors, unless “reasonably necessary” for work purposes.

The Department for Education has confirmed it had an office gathering to thank staff for their work during the pandemic. It says drinks and snacks were brought by those who attended and no outside guests or support staff were invited.

The Conservative Party has admitted that an “unauthorised gathering” took place at its HQ in Westminster. It was held by the team of the party's London-mayoral candidate, Shaun Bailey, who has since stepped down as chair of the London Assembly police and crime committee. The Metropolitan Police is to speak to two people who attended the party.

The gathering at the Conservative Party headquarters was described as ‘raucous’
Image caption The gathering at the Conservative Party headquarters was described as ‘raucous’ Image copyright by Daily Mirror

Multiple sources have told the BBC there was a Christmas quiz for No 10 staff last year. A photo - published by the Sunday Mirror - showed Boris Johnson taking part and sitting between two colleagues in No 10. Mr Johnson has denied any wrongdoing.

Mr Johnson was pictured in the No 10 library under a portrait of Margaret Thatcher
Image caption Mr Johnson was pictured in the No 10 library under a portrait of Margaret Thatcher Image copyright by Sunday Mirror

London moved into the highest tier of restrictions and Matt Hancock, who was health secretary at the time, said it was important “everyone is cautious” ahead of the festive period.

The Department for Transport apologised after confirming reports of a party in its offices that day, calling it “inappropriate" and an "error of judgment” by staff.

A leaving party was held at the Cabinet Office for the outgoing head of the civil service Covid taskforce - the team responsible for drawing up coronavirus restrictions.

Kate Josephs, now chief executive of Sheffield City Council, apologised for the event, saying she was “truly sorry that I did this and for the anger that people will feel as a result”.

Downing Street originally denied a report by the Daily Mirror that a party took place in Downing Street.

However, a video obtained by ITV News showed the prime minister's then-press secretary Allegra Stratton, joking about reports of an event, saying: “This fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.”

A gathering was held in No 10 Downing Street to mark the departure of two private secretaries.

Lockdown restrictions were eased in England, with pubs and restaurants allowed to reopen with outdoor service only.

However, working from home continued to be recommended and socialising indoors with people from other households was not allowed. Meeting others outdoors was limited to groups of six people or two households.

Two parties were held by Downing Street staff at No 10, the night before Prince Philip's funeral.

One of the events was a leaving party for the PM's then director of communications James Slack, who has apologised for the event and acknowledged it “should not have happened at the time that it did”.

Boris Johnson was not at either party.