LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been shadowed by career-threatening scandal for months – but so far he has escaped unscathed.
This week he faces one more threat to his political future: a comprehensive report into lockdown-breaching parties in government offices that is expected to be published within days.
Senior civil servant Sue Gray is due to release her findings on “partygate,” the scandal over more than a dozen gatherings in Johnson’s 10 Downing St. residence and nearby buildings that took place when coronavirus restrictions barred people in Britain from mixing with others.
Claims that Johnson and his staff enjoyed illegal office parties while millions in the country were prevented from seeing friends and family in 2020 and 2021 have dogged Johnson’s Conservative government since they first surfaced late last year. Critics, including some within Johnson’s own ranks, have called for him to resign.
Police investigated and said last week they had issued a total of 126 fines to 83 people. Most are thought to be junior staffers, but one 50-pound ($60) fine went to Johnson, for attending a surprise birthday party thrown for him in June 2020. That made him the first British prime minister ever found to have broken the law while in office.
Treasury chief Rishi Sunak and Johnson’s wife, Carrie, have said they also paid fines for attending Johnson’s birthday party.
Johnson apologized, but insisted that he didn’t knowingly break the rules, saying “it did not occur to me” that the brief gathering, complete with birthday cake, was a party – a claim that drew derision from many.
Pressure grew again on Monday when broadcaster ITV published four photographs showing Johnson raising a glass in front of a group of people, with snacks and several wine bottles on a table in front of him.
ITV said the pictures were taken at a leaving party for Johnson’s communications chief in November 2020, when England was under the second of three periods of national lockdown. When allegations of Downing Street parties emerged a few weeks later, Johnson told lawmakers “there was no party” and no rules were broken.
Officials in Johnson’s office worry that Gray’s report may include more photos, vivid evidence that could reignite public anger over revelations government staff enjoyed “bring your own booze” office parties and “wine time Fridays” while millions stuck to lockdown rules.
Johnson has clung on to power so far, partly because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine diverted public and political attention. Some Conservatives who had considered seeking a no-confidence vote in their leader said it would be rash to push Johnson out in the middle of a European war.
Johnson got a further reprieve when the Metropolitan Police told him last week that he wouldn’t be getting any more fines, even though he attended several of the events under investigation.
Treasury minister Simon Clarke defended the prime minister on Monday, saying Johnson “had a fine for a slice of cake between meetings.”
He said the context of the parties was a government under “extraordinary” pressure during the pandemic with people “working on questions of literally life and death” and operating under “exhausting strain.”
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