Friday afternoons were apparently “wine time” for Downing Street staffers. Officials sat on each other’s laps, emptying bottle after bottle, leaving bins overflowing with rubbish, witnesses told the British broadcaster BBC anonymously. This is the sort of evidence that the civil servant Sue Gray was gathering over the past five months. Her report was commissioned in December, after photos emerged of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson enjoying cheese and wine with his staff — shocking the nation.
The “Investigation Into Alleged Gatherings on Government Premises During COVID Restrictions” lists more details of what was going on at the highest ranks of UK government while the rest of the country was in lockdown: a drinking culture so noisy that others in the building could not concentrate on work, a person getting sick, rudeness toward cleaning and security staff. The report concludes that there was a failure of leadership and that the behavior fell short of what the British public could expect from leaders. This comes after Johnson’s gatherings were already investigated by police and the prime minister was fined for breaking lockdown rules.
‘Culture of entitlement’
Many opposition politicians have called for Johnson to resign, and victims groups are seething. Jean Adamson lost her father, a care home resident, to COVID-19. She was not able to be with him when he died, not able to comfort him during his illness. She told DW that she is appalled by what happened in government and that she cannot forgive Johnson, whom she calls a “dishonourable man.” “There was clearly a culture of entitlement”, she said. “The rules somehow didn’t apply to them. They disrespected the nation: We were supposed to follow the rules, and we did, to the letter. The prime minister should have gone a long time ago.”
Fran Hall, a member of the group COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, for which Adamson is a campaigner, also said Johnson should go. She lost her partner, Steve, who had suffered from cancer. Because of the strict lockdown rules, she was not able to visit him in hospital when he contracted COVID, not able to comfort him, hug him.
Hall said her partner’s funeral was 10 days before Johnson was photographed raising a glass to toast a member of his team who was leaving. She feels bitter that she could not have any celebration of Steve and his life: “I followed the rules,” she says. “Millions of people followed the law because it was there to protect us, to stop people from contracting COVID,” Hall said. “And all the time, for over a year in Downing Street, there were officials within government and members of the government breaking the law.” She would like Johnson to resign and “disappear.”
Tory support remains
Johnson is not willing to go. In Parliament on May 25, he said he was sorry for what he had done and apologized. But Johnson only admitted small mistakes, claiming that he had “no knowledge” of how the gatherings, that he only “briefly” attended, were proceeding after his departure. Tory MPs were stone-faced while they were listening, but so far it seems the overwhelming majority of them are still backing Johnson. “When the prime minister gets passionate, things get done” was the verdict of backbench Conservative MP Graham Stuart.
Johnson’s approval ratings have fallen steadily since “Partygate,” but many MPs still remember the landslide majority he won with his ability to reach voters who had never voted Conservative before. Johnson himself is doing everything he can to stay in power, promising that lessons have been learned, assuring that his office has been restructured, and that he is ready to “move on.” But there still is the issue of whether he lied to Parliament — a severe charge that is being investigated by a parliamentary committee. When questioned in the House of Commons whether a particular party took place on November 13, 2020, he had responded: “No, but I am sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.”
New photos from that day have now emerged, showing Johnson raising a glass with his staff, surrounded by bottles of wine. During that time, the country was in strict lockdown, indoor meetings were forbidden, unless for work. So, following the police fines and the recent release of the compromising photos and as the accusations that Johnson misled Parliament continue, “Partygate” is not over. But the prime minister clearly has no intention of offering his resignation — and he won’t likely be asked for it by his Tories in Parliament.