Europe Politics

Boris Johnson's leadership on a knife-edge amid calls for him to resign over lockdown 'parties'

Key Points
  • U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson's leadership is on a knife-edge as a scandal over "parties" held at Downing Street, and allegedly in several other government ministries.
  • Parties or gatherings were held by government staff allegedly during Covid lockdowns.
  • There are calls from senior Conservative Party officials for Johnson to resign.
  • Johnson admitted on Wednesday that he had attended a drinks party at Downing Street, the prime minister's office and which he lives next door to, during lockdown.
LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 08: British prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a press conference at 10 Downing Street.
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LONDON — U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson's leadership is on a knife-edge as a scandal over "parties" held at Downing Street — and allegedly in various other government departments — during Covid-19 lockdowns in the U.K. has prompted calls for his resignation.

Senior Conservative Party officials are calling on Johnson to quit after he admitted on Wednesday that he had attended a garden drinks party at Downing Street, the prime minister's office and which he lives next door to, during lockdown when the public were barred from seeing more than one person in an outdoor setting that they didn't live with.

Reports of parties while the British public sacrificed their freedoms and social lives, not to mention their time with loved ones, has caused widespread anger. The senior officials are questioning whether Johnson can still command the respect of the party, and the country.

CNBC has a guide to "partygate" and why Johnson's time in office could be drawing to an end.

What's going on?

Johnson admitted that he had attended a party billed as a "bring your own booze" gathering in Downing Street's garden, to which around 100 people were reportedly invited, during lockdown.

Addressing a packed House of Commons (the lower House of Parliament), Johnson offered his "heartfelt apologies" to the nation but defended himself, saying he had only attended the party for 25 minutes in order to "thank groups of staff" for their hard work and that he "believed implicitly that this was a work event."

Addressing parliament, opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer said Johnson's explanation for his attendance was "so ridiculous that it's actually offensive to the British public" as he called on Johnson "to do the decent thing and resign."

The party attended by Johnson is controversial because it was held on May 20, 2020, when the U.K. was in its first Covid lockdown and people across the country were only allowed to meet one other person from outside their household, among other strict rules.

It's not the first report of a lockdown party held by government officials either.

More parties being investigated

The emergence of details surrounding the May 20 party, which was organized by the prime minister's principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, come after several weeks of reports and evidence of various parties and gatherings — defended by government officials as "working events" — held in Downing Street and other government offices at various points during the pandemic.

While the British media has doggedly sought to expose more details of parties, with details and photos of a number of them being leaked to the press, the British public has become increasingly angry as the gatherings took place invariably at times when people were not meant to socialize.

On the May 20 instance, for example, the rules in place meant that couples or relatives who lived apart were not allowed to hug. Non-essential shops, restaurants, pubs and bars were all closed at the time too.

People who lost loved-ones during the pandemic have poured scorn on the government following the reports of parties, feeling they were robbed of precious moments with family while politicians flouted the rules.

UK PM Boris Johnson in terminal position, British politics professor says
UK PM Boris Johnson in terminal position, British politics professor says

Earlier this week, Johnson had been asked if he and his wife Carrie Johnson had attended the May 20 party but he dodged the question, telling a journalist that an inquiry into several parties allegedly held and attended by government staff is underway.

The investigation into whether there were parties that breached the rules is being led by a senior civil servant, Sue Gray, who is expected to present her findings next week. Sky News has published a list of the alleged parties here.

Cabinet Secretary Simon Case was originally due to lead the inquiry but he was forced to quit the investigation after it was revealed that a gathering was held in his own private office in December 2020, also breaking rules in place at the time.

How bad is it for Boris?

Senior Conservatives have been calling for Johnson to quit after his admission to Parliament on Wednesday that he did indeed attend the Downing Street party.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said Wednesday the prime minister's position was "no longer tenable" while the BBC reported Thursday that other Conservative lawmakers had called on Johnson to go.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves the Houses of Parliament after the weekly PMQ's on January 12, 2022 in London, England. During Prime Minister's Questions today Boris Johnson told the House that he joined staff in the garden of 10 Downing Street for 25 minutes shortly after 6pm on May 20, 2020, during Coronavirus lockdown. He said that he “believed implicitly that this was a work event” and returned to work in No 10 afterwards.
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There are claims that letters from Conservative Party lawmakers demanding a vote of no confidence — 54 letters are needed to trigger a challenge — were being submitted to Graham Brady, who chairs the backbench 1922 Committee which oversees leadership challenges, according to Sky News.

In more bad news for Johnson, a new opinion poll by YouGov and The Times newspaper has shown a big drop in support for the Conservatives, giving Tory lawmakers more reason to question Johnson's future in office.

Whether Johnson will heed calls to resign is another matter with reports suggesting he still has the support of his closest ministers, his Cabinet. Johnson and his government have also weathered political storms before and have garnered some credit for "getting Brexit done." Despite the furor this week, sterling was trading up 0.2% against the dollar on Thursday, with the pound worth $1.3728 and up almost 0.2% year to date.

Tory lawmakers will now be assessing whether they believe Johnson can win a future election, however, given low public trust in him. Local elections are taking place in May and that will be the next test of strength of public support for the party itself. A closer test for the prime minister will be the publication of Sue Gray's findings following her investigation into government "parties," which is due next week.

Rod Dacombe, director of the Centre for British Politics and Government at King's College, London, told CNBC Thursday that Johnson has been "in a permanent state of crisis" during his premiership, which began in 2019, first with tumultuous Brexit negotiations and a tortured deal, and then with the Covid pandemic.

"The danger of electoral problems for the Conservative Party overall really does hang over his head," he noted. "If he ceases to become electorally helpful to the party I think then he will face real problems and that's what the poll data is telling us."

Dacombe believed Johnson "is in what looks like a terminal position, I think that's fair, but I suspect that it's going to be a little while before we see any real strong challenge towards his leadership," he told CNBC's "Squawk Box Europe."

If a challenge was to come, there is speculation that Finance Minister Rishi Sunak could be first in line. Dacombe agreed, saying that "conventionally, you would think it [a challenge] would be one of the bigger names in the party ... but there's always a chance of someone slightly out of the mainstream .. so it's an open field I would suggest."