At the lowest point of his premiership, Johnson has confessed to, and apologized for, turning up at the now infamous event on May 20, 2020. But the furore only continued: Further revelations of parties at the heart of the British government have emerged, he is under attack from his former chief aide Dominic Cummings and more of his own backbenchers are calling for his resignation.
Johnson is now planning a clear-out of staff to save himself and a blitz of policy announcements to revitalize his agenda. The parties issue has dominated the front pages of British newspapers for weeks, while support for the ruling Conservatives has slumped.
“I can tell you categorically that nobody told me and said that this was something that was against the rules, that was a breach of the Covid rules or you’re doing something that wasn’t a work event,” Johnson said Tuesday, as he continued to field questions about the May 20 party.
Johnson is also bracing for the findings of the investigation led by senior civil servant Sue Gray which could come as soon as this week.
Most of Johnson’s MPs are standing by him, but if she reveals the premier lied about his knowledge of any of the parties that could prove a tipping point. Local elections are looming in May, where a particularly poor performance for the Tories could spell Johnson’s end.
Matters have worsened for the prime minister in part due to the interventions by Cummings, who was forced from his position 14 months ago. It was his blog post this month about the May 20 party that set off the latest furor.
Cummings then significantly upped the ante, saying he would “swear under oath” the premier both was aware of and allowed the drinks party to go ahead. If true, it would suggest Johnson misled Parliament with his own account last week — a breach of the ministerial code.
On Tuesday, the potential ramifications were laid bare by two of Johnson’s most senior cabinet ministers who pointedly said any breaches of the code should lead to his resignation.
“The ministerial code is clear,” Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak said in a pooled broadcast interview. Sunak also said that “of course” he believes Johnson’s account of events.
Dominic Raab, who is both justice secretary and Johnson’s deputy, told BBC radio: “If it’s lying, deliberate in the way you describe, if it’s not corrected immediately it would normally — under the ministerial code and the governance around Parliament — be a resigning matter.”
In his statement to the House of Commons last week, Johnson said he thought he was attending a “work” gathering in May 2020 and that he only stayed for 25 minutes. His office has also repeatedly said the premier was not aware of the event beforehand, and did not receive the widely reported “bring your own booze” email invitation from his principal private secretary Martin Reynolds.
But in his blog post, Cummings said “at least two” people raised concerns with Johnson before the party. “The events of 20 May alone, never mind the string of other events, mean the PM lied to Parliament about parties.”
Johnson’s spokesman, Max Blain, told reporters at a regular briefing Tuesday that the prime minister “abides” by the ministerial code, and that Downing Street parties were not discussed at the weekly cabinet meeting.
Even if Johnson clings on, the controversy over what the media have dubbed “partygate” will have caused lasting damage. A poll lead has turned into a double-digit deficit against the opposition Labour Party in many surveys.
The fallout has also generated some humiliating moments for Johnson, including having to apologize to Queen Elizabeth II for parties held on the eve of her husband Prince Philip’s funeral.
“I deeply and bitterly regret that that happened,” he said.