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Sorry is the hardest word for Boris Johnson

1 month ago 7
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First, all coronavirus guidance was followed. Then there was no party. Then the British prime minister was ambushed by a cake. And now, after more than six months of drip-drip allegations, Boris Johnson takes “full responsibility.”

The prime minister has faced months of scrutiny and investigations as the Partygate scandal enveloped the top of the U.K. government, culminating Wednesday in the publication in full of a report into the affair by senior civil servant Sue Gray. 

That report concluded that Johnson had presided over “failures of leadership and judgment” in Downing Street, piling more pressure on the prime minister.

Johnson was earlier fined in April — along with Chancellor Rishi Sunak — for attending a gathering on his birthday in June 2020, while U.K. laws prohibited indoor mixing. The Metropolitan Police spared Johnson any further action when they closed their probe last week.

After initially opting to deny, when the story first broke, that he was aware of any rule-breaking parties in Downing Street, in the face of Gray’s report Johnson said that he took “full responsibility” for what the investigator established had taken place.

Here’s how Johnson’s position evolved over time.

All guidance was followed — December 1, 2021

Following the original Partygate report — concerning a Christmas shindig in Downing Street in December 2020 — from the Daily Mirror and follow-ups from other newspapers, Johnson was forced for the first time to respond to the allegations at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons. 

Asked by Labour leader Keir Starmer if a Christmas party was thrown in Downing Street “for dozens of people” on December 18, 2020, Johnson did not deny that the reported event took place. He instead insisted no rules were broken, even though the government’s laws at the time prohibited work Christmas parties or lunches.

“What I can tell the right honorable and learned gentleman is that all guidance was followed completely in No. 10,” Johnson said.

His press secretary claimed shortly after that No. 10 “doesn’t recognize these reports,” but refused to elaborate. 

There was no party — December 6

In a daily briefing with journalists one Monday in December, Johnson’s press team went one further.

“There was not a party and the COVID rules were followed at all times,” a spokesperson for the prime minister said. Once again, they refused to elaborate on how they came to this conclusion.

The very next day, ITV News published a leaked video of Johnson’s staff joking about a Christmas party in Downing Street.

Repeatedly assured there was no party — December 8

Pressed on the leaked video, Johnson apologized in parliament “for the offence that it has caused up and down the country” and said that he had been “repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no COVID rules were broken.” 

He announced that the head of the civil service Simon Case would conduct an inquiry into the affair.

Johnson was also asked by Labour MP Catherine West if a party had specifically taken place on November 13, reportedly the date of a leaving party for a senior aide.

“No, but I’m sure whatever happened the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times,” Johnson responded. But photographs published by ITV News on Monday appeared to show Johnson drinking wine at an event on that date with multiple staff members.

Johnson claims he was unaware there had been rule-breaking parties in Downing Street | Pool photo by Scott Heppell/AFP via Getty Images

I broke no rules, wait for Simon Case — December 13

One day after yet another damaging revelation — a photo published by the Sunday Mirror of Johnson hosting a Christmas quiz alongside a colleague wearing tinsel — Johnson held the line on his own conduct.

“I can tell you once again that I certainly broke no rules,” he told reporters, adding that they should wait for the government’s inquiry to investigate the matter — the first of many times he would use the drawn-out probe as a way to dodge difficult questions. 

Wait for Sue Gray — December 17

Just days later, the wait-for-Simon-Case line was blown apart after POLITICO and other outlets reported that Case, the man tasked with leading the inquiry, had been accused of attending at least two lockdown-busting parties himself in December 2020.

A No. 10 spokesperson later confirmed that Case had recused himself from the investigation. He was replaced by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant who would become a household name in the weeks that followed.

Work event — December 20

In response to the now-infamous image of Johnson, his wife and 17 staff members in the Downing Street garden with bottles of wine and a cheeseboard during the first national lockdown, the prime minister claimed it showed “people at work, talking about work.” 

His spokesperson added that “work meetings” often take place in the government building’s garden. Less helpfully, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab suggested the image didn’t show COVID rule-breaking as Johnson and his staff could be seen wearing suits. 

Hindsight is a wonderful thing — January 12, 2022

Johnson found himself apologizing once again in front of parliament, after ITV News obtained an email which suggested one of his most senior officials had invited more than 100 employees to a “bring your own booze” garden party during the first lockdown. 

He admitted attending the eventual gathering for 25 minutes to thank staff and said that, “with hindsight, I should have sent everyone back inside.” He insisted that at the time he believed it was a work event.

Both Johnson and his official spokesperson denied that the prime minister had seen the email invite.

Another apology, wait for Sue Gray — January 13

Following the particularly damaging revelation — as reported in the Telegraph — that No. 10 staff partied with a suitcase full of wine on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral in April 2021, Johnson’s office was forced to apologize to the U.K.’s Queen Elizabeth II.

It was “deeply regrettable that this took place at a time of national mourning,” the prime minister’s official spokesperson said. Johnson did not comment publicly, with the spokesperson citing the need to avoid “prejudging” Gray’s inquiry.

Nobody told me that a garden party was against the rules — January 19

As the furor continued over the garden party and some of Johnson’s own MPs began to turn on him, the prime minister found himself effectively admitting that he wasn’t fully abreast of the rules his government put in place.

“I’m saying categorically that nobody told me, nobody said this was something that was against the rules, doing something that wasn’t a work event because frankly, I can’t imagine why it would have gone ahead, or it would have been allowed to go ahead if it was against the rules,” he said in an excruciating interview with Sky News.

Ambushed with a cake — January 25

Downing Street admitted that Johnson attended, for less than 10 minutes, a surprise birthday get-together in June 2020, after ITV reported the event took place with up to 30 people in No. 10. 

One of his key allies, the Northern Ireland Minister Conor Burns, argued that the event wasn’t pre-planned — and that Johnson had simply been “ambushed with a cake.” 

Sorry, now let me get on with the job — January 31

“I am sorry for the things we simply did not get right,” Johnson told parliament in January, following the publication of a damning “update” from Sue Gray. 

Quoting Gray’s call for “significant learning” to take place in the aftermath, Johnson promised changes to his top team. He also said he intended to “fix it” and to get on with the job, the first of many attempts from the government to move the story on. 

Wait for the Met — February 20

Pressed for a total of 11 minutes in a BBC interview on the subject of Partygate, Johnson point-blank refused to get drawn in to answering questions about his conduct.

“There is literally not a bean I can tell you about that,” Johnson said, repeatedly claiming he couldn’t comment while the Met were carrying out inquiries. 

Boris bingo — April 12

When Downing Street announced that Johnson had paid a police fine for attending his birthday gathering, the prime minister first offered a “full apology” in a TV clip released by No. 10.

He then moved on to more familiar territory. Johnson insisted it “did not occur” to him at the time that the event breached the rules and said he would now “focus on the job in hand.” Downing Street confirmed he wouldn’t issue a full Partygate statement until after the Met had completed their inquiries. 

Privileges U-turn — April 21

Johnson was forced to back down on efforts to hobble a Labour motion calling for the prime minister to be referred to a parliament committee investigation. 

Having initially sought to instruct Tory MPs to block the motion — which would see the parliament privileges committee instructed to investigate whether Johnson had misled parliament — the government shifted its position and instructed its MPs not to oppose the motion, which passed without a vote. 

Wait for Sue Gray — May 19

When the Metropolitan Police announced the completion of its investigation — and No. 10 hurriedly confirmed Johnson had faced no further fines — Brits wondered if they would finally hear the promised Partygate explanation in full from their prime minister.

They were to be disappointed. Asked by journalists if Johnson was planning to make a public statement, his spokesperson said he would update parliament only once Sue Gray’s report was published in full. 

A final apology — May 25

With the final report published, Johnson renewed his apology for the events that Gray established had taken place, adding what he said was the “context” of government staff working “extremely long hours.”

“I take full responsibility for everything that took place on my watch. Sue Gray’s report has emphasized that it is up to the political leadership in No. 10 to take ultimate responsibility — and, of course, I do,” Johnson said.

“I am humbled and I have learned a lesson,” he added.

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