Boris Johnson, Under Fire, Apologizes for Pandemic Party

The British prime minister, on the defensive after a series of ethical lapses, said, “There were things we simply did not get right” about a gathering at Downing Street during a lockdown in 2020.

The British prime minister, on the defensive after a series of ethical lapses, said, “There were things we simply did not get right” about a gathering at Downing Street during a lockdown in 2020.

LONDON — Facing a potentially lethal threat to his leadership, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain on Wednesday offered a contrite apology in Parliament for attending a Downing Street garden party while his country was under a strict coronavirus lockdown.

Mr. Johnson, who had not previously admitted to being at the party, acknowledged that his conduct had deeply offended the public, even as he insisted that the gathering did not breach his government’s regulations on social mixing during the early days of the pandemic.

“I want to apologize,” a rueful Mr. Johnson said during an extraordinarily tense session of Prime Minister’s Questions. “I know the rage they feel with me and with the government I lead when they think in Downing Street itself the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules.”

“There were things we simply did not get right,” Mr. Johnson added, “and I must take that responsibility.”

The prime minister said that he viewed the B.Y.O.B. party, on May 20, 2020, as “implicitly a work event,” an opportunity to thank staff members for their efforts during the initial phase of the coronavirus pandemic. But he said he understood that the public, who were being told not to meet more than a single person outside their households, would view it as an unacceptable double standard.

“With hindsight, I should have sent everybody back inside,” Mr. Johnson said. “I should have found some other way to thank them.”

The prime minister’s abject apology might have brought him some political breathing room, analysts said. But it did little to dispel the storm clouds over him, with the opposition Labour Party calling for his resignation and Conservative Party backbenchers fearing a fierce public backlash. His fate, some said, now hinged on an internal investigation of the May garden party and of other social gatherings.

Mr. Johnson’s admission came after weeks of misleading statements about whether there were any such gatherings at Downing Street. And his defense of the May 2020 party as a “work event” seemed at odds with an email invitation from his private secretary, which emerged late Monday, describing the party as an opportunity “to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks.”

The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, dismissed Mr. Johnson’s display of contrition, accused him of serial duplicity and demanded that he step down for violating his office by misleading Parliament.

“The party is over, prime minister,” Mr. Starmer said, asking, “The only question is, ‘Will the British public kick him out, will his party kick him out, or will he do the decent thing and resign?'”

Mr. Johnson deflected that demand, asking for Parliament to wait for the findings of the investigation, led by a senior civil servant, Sue Gray. But he looked beleaguered under a torrent of hostile questions from Mr. Starmer, a former public prosecutor, offering little in the way of a defense and repeatedly apologizing for having mishandled the situation.

For Mr. Johnson, one of the greatest risks is the mounting evidence that he misled Parliament in his previous statements — the kind of transgression that once might have forced a prime minister to resign. On Dec. 8, he declared in the House of Commons, “I repeat that I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken.”

A week later, Mr. Johnson told reporters, “I can tell you once again that I certainly broke no rules.” On Dec. 20, after The Guardian newspaper published a photograph of the prime minister mixing with colleagues over wine and cheese in his garden during a lockdown, he said, “Those were people at work, talking about work.”

After the most recent disclosure — of the larger party that he also attended — Mr. Johnson stopped offering any response, saying that he would wait for the findings of the internal investigation.

Unlike other ethics questions that have clouded Mr. Johnson throughout his career, the furor over parties has struck a chord with the public. People vividly remember the grim months early in the pandemic, when they were told to isolate at home, and forbidden from visiting elderly parents, even if they became ill.

Amid the frenzy over this week, there have been clear signs that his support within the Conservative Party is waning. On Tuesday, when Mr. Johnson sent out a ministerial colleague to defend him in Parliament, few of his own lawmakers turned out in support.

Later, Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, told ITV News that if the prime minister had misled Parliament “that is a resigning matter,” adding that he would not support Mr. Johnson if he had broken the law and attended the party.

Other lawmakers have complained in public that they have no answers to the anger expressed by voters. “How do you defend the indefensible? You can’t!” Christian Wakeford, a Conservative lawmaker, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday, adding: “It’s embarrassing and what’s worse is it further erodes trust in politics when it’s already low. We need openness, trust and honesty in our politics now more than ever and that starts from the top!”

Paul Goodman, a former Conservative lawmaker and editor of the influential ConservativeHome website, suggested in a blog post on Wednesday that, though Mr. Johnson might still be able to survive, the crisis could be a fatal blow for him.

“Would it therefore be better for the Party to take the hit of a Prime Ministerial resignation now — and plunge into the uncertainties that would follow — rather than prolong the pain?” he wrote.

For Mr. Johnson to be forced out, 54 Conservative Party lawmakers would have to write to Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, which represents Tory backbenchers, and call for a vote of no confidence in Mr. Johnson. Those communications are private, so it is not known how many requests have been sent, though analysts say they believe the number is probably still low.

Were that to change, Mr. Johnson would have to win a majority in a vote among the 361 Conservative lawmakers to survive. If he did so, he could not be challenged again for 12 months unless the rules were revised.

Even without a contest, lawmakers and government officials can put pressure on unpopular prime ministers in other ways, for example if ministers resign from the government or cabinet colleagues rebel.

The best hope for Mr. Johnson is that he can weather the immediate storm and that the impending inquiry into the Downing Street parties by Ms. Gray is less conclusive than the prime minister’s critics would wish. In those circumstances, Mr. Johnson might be able to fight on, though he might have to sacrifice some of his senior aides.

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