UK prime minister Boris Johnson presided over a culture of lockdown-breaking parties that featured drunken fighting among staff, according to a long-awaited inquiry Wednesday (25) that prompted renewed calls for his resignation.
“Many of these events should not have been allowed to happen,” the report by senior civil servant Sue Gray said.
“The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture,” she wrote.
The report came out as a photograph published by the Daily Mirror newspaper showed a Downing Street table laden with wine bottles and doughnuts. It said an accompanying WhatsApp message told staff: “Time to open the Covid secure bar.”
But the Mirror said that particular event in November 2020 was thought not to have been investigated by Gray or London’s Metropolitan Police, which has issued multiple fines over other events, including one against Johnson himself.
The prime minister has defied calls to resign after he received the fine, but many MPs from his Conservative party were understood to be awaiting the details revealed in Gray’s full report before deciding whether to trigger a leadership ballot.
The opposition Labour party said the report vindicated its calls for Johnson to quit and restore “honour” to British politics.
In her findings, Grey showed senior officials discussing how to handle various invitations.
In one WhatsApp exchange, Johnson’s former communications director Lee Cain noted the “rather substantial comms risks” of holding one leaving party for an official in June 2020.
‘Bring your own booze’
Grey said of the hours-long party: “There was excessive alcohol consumption by some individuals. One individual was sick. There was a minor altercation between two other individuals.”
In another exchange following a garden party in May 2020 where senior official Martin Reynolds invited staff to “bring your own booze”, Reynolds told an unnamed colleague that the media were focused on an unspecified “non-story”.
But he said that was “better than them focusing on our drinks (which we seem to have got away with)”.
Johnson was expected to address the House of Commons about the report, before holding a news conference and then attending a meeting of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tories.
Gray released a preliminary version of her report in January but held off fuller publication as the Met announced its own investigation.
That is now complete with the issuance of 126 fines to 83 people, although the police force is under pressure to reopen the investigation as new evidence emerges.
The BBC‘s Panorama programme late Tuesday (24) interviewed people who attended another leaving party in November 2020, as daily deaths from Covid climbed towards a peak of more than 1,000 a day the following January.
They described a rule-breaking culture with dozens of people crowded into the room.
The party came days after the government ordered a second Covid lockdown in England and banned households from mixing to try to halt the close contact spread of the virus.
Culture of workplace drinking during Covid
The event was on a Friday, when the Downing Street press office organised regular “WTF” (“Wine-Time Friday”) drinks starting at 4 pm, according to Panorama.
A security guard was mocked when he tried to stop a party in full flow, people who attended told the BBC.
In photos published late on Monday (23) by ITV News, Johnson can be seen raising a glass and chatting with several people around a table with bottles of wine and food.
The prime minister faces allegations that he lied to parliament in denying any such party ever took place, which would normally be considered a resigning offence.
With opinion polls showing deep public disapproval of “Partygate”, Conservative MPs must calculate whether Johnson remains an electoral asset or is now a liability heading into two important by-elections next month.
Last month, the Conservatives lost hundreds of council seats in local elections, although anger at the eye-watering rise in the cost of living was seen as the main issue at the ballot box.
Environment Secretary George Eustice acknowledged that a “culture” of workplace drinking had developed at Downing Street during the lockdowns.
“That boundary between what was acceptable and what wasn’t got blurred, and that was a mistake,” he told Times Radio.
“The prime minister himself has accepted that and recognises there were of course failings, and therefore there’s got to be some changes to the way the place is run,” Eustice added.