British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s authority took yet another hit on Friday after revelations that his staff had partied in Downing Street as Queen Elizabeth mourned her husband, at a time when mixing indoors was banned.
Johnson is facing the gravest crisis of his premiership following news of a series of social gatherings at his residence during Covid-19 lockdowns, some held at times when ordinary people could not bid farewell in person to dying relatives.
After building a political career out of flouting accepted norms, Johnson is under growing pressure from some of his own lawmakers to quit due to apparent rule-breaking at Downing Street.
The Telegraph said there were two other drinks parties held inside Downing Street on April 16, 2021, when social gatherings indoors and outdoors were limited. Johnson was at his Chequers country residence that day, the paper said.
Such was the revelry in Downing Street, the Telegraph said, that staff went to a nearby supermarket to buy a suitcase of alcohol, used a laptop to play music and a swing used by the prime minister’s young son was broken.
The next day, Queen Elizabeth bade farewell to Prince Philip, her husband of 73 years, following his death aged 99.
Dressed in black and in a white trimmed black face mask, the 95-year-old Elizabeth cut a poignant figure as she sat alone, in strict compliance with coronavirus rules, during the funeral service for Philip at Windsor Castle.
‘Leave the stage’
Opponents have called for Johnson to resign, casting the 57-year-old prime minister as a charlatan who demanded the British people follow some of the most onerous rules in peacetime history while his own staff partied.
A small but growing number in his own Conservative Party have echoed those calls, fearing it will do lasting damage to its electoral prospects.
“Sadly, the Prime Minister’s position has become untenable,” said Conservative lawmaker Andrew Bridgen, a former Johnson supporter. “The time is right to leave the stage.”
Johnson has given a variety of explanations of the parties, ranging from denials that any rules were broken to expressing understanding for the public anger at apparent hypocrisy at the heart of the British state.
To trigger a leadership challenge, 54 of the 360 Conservative members of parliament must write letters of no confidence to the chairman of the party’s “1922 Committee”.
Bridgen said he had submitted a letter of no confidence. The Telegraph said as many as 30 letters of no confidence had been submitted.
Johnson faces a tough year ahead: beyond Covid, inflation is soaring, energy bills are spiking, taxation will rise in April and his party faces local elections in May.
One of the April 2021 parties in Downing Street was a leaving event for James Slack, a former director of communications, who on Friday said he wanted to “apologise unreservedly for the anger and hurt caused”.
Slack, now deputy editor of the tabloid Sun newspaper, said in a statement to PA Media that the gathering “should not have happened at the time that it did”.
Asked about the reports of parties the day before Philip’s funeral, a Downing Street spokesperson said:
“(Slack) gave a farewell speech to thank each team for the work they had done to support him, both those who had to be in the office for work and on a screen for those working from home.”
British police said on Thursday they would not investigate gatherings held in Johnson’s residence during a coronavirus lockdown unless an internal government inquiry finds evidence of potential criminal offences.