Amid calls to step down, U.K. PM Boris Johnson apologizes for lockdown BYOB bash

Embattled leader tells Parliament he believed the garden soiree at 10 Downing Street was a "work event."
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Boris Johnson in Parliament
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the House of Commons, London, Jan. 12, 2022.
(By House of Commons/PA Images via Getty Images)

Embattled British Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed Parliament Wednesday to apologize for attending a drinks event in the gardens at 10 Downing Street on May 20, 2020 — during the height of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.

Offering his "heartfelt apologies" to the British people, Johnson attempted to limit the political fallout from the episode, claiming that technically the event was within the rules while admitting it was still a mistake. He claimed that he understood it to be a "work event" and only stayed for "25 minutes." 

A senior civil servant, Sue Gray, has been tasked with leading an independent inquiry into this and other government parties during lockdown.

Especially damaging for Johnson is the wording of the invitation to the May 20 gathering sent out to more than 100 staffers by his Principal Private Secretary, Martin Reynolds. Noting "it would be nice to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the No. 10 garden this evening," the invitation to the purported "work event" read, "Please join us from 6pm and bring your own booze!"

The BYOB soiree took place less than an hour after then-Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden announced to the British people: "You can meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor public place provided that you stay two meters apart."

Around 40 people attended the Downing Street party, which clearly violated that prohibition. 

The so-called "partygate" scandal has led U.K. police to issue a statement: "The Metropolitan Police service is aware of widespread reporting relating to alleged breaches of the Health Protection Regulations at Downing Street on 20 May 2020 and is in contact with the Cabinet Office." 

Some members of Parliament from Johnson's Conservative Party were satisfied with the prime minister’s act of contrition. "I think when someone makes an apology like that, then reasonable people accept the apology," said Christopher Chope MP.

The leader of the Scottish Conservatives, however, has demanded Johnson’s resignation. "He is the prime minister," said Douglas Ross, "it is his government that put these rules in place, and he has to be held to account for his actions."

Veteran Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale went further and accused the prime minister of misleading Parliament and described him as, politically speaking, a "dead man walking."

The prime minister told Parliament: "I know the rage they feel with me and with the government."

But this is not the first case of lockdown double standards on Johnson's watch.

Just a month after the Downing Street party, the G7 conference was held in Cornwall, and world leaders were exempted from the strict quarantine laws that every other visitor and returnee to the U.K. faced. They were also filmed hugging at a beach barbecue in defiance of social distancing laws. 

The next day, then-Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab admitted without apology to double-standards, telling Sky News: "There has always been different principles for social entertainment and weddings than for government business."

Hypocrisy and even adultery are hardly new to politics, but leaked video footage in the Sun Newspaper of then-Health Secretary, Matt Hancock — who introduced many of the strict lockdown restrictions — groping his advisor and mistress, Gina Coladangelo, left the nation stunned at his level of duplicity. 

The married father of three refused to resign, stating: "I remain focused on working to get the country out of this pandemic and would be grateful for privacy for my family on this personal matter." Prime Minister Johnson agreed and initially stood by his disgraced minister.

When Johnson's senior COVID advisor, Professor Neil Ferguson, was discovered having an extramarital affair while recovering from COVID, clearly violating social distancing laws, he was not told to resign but eventually made the decision himself. 

Police at Scotland Yard described Ferguson's behavior as "plainly disappointing" but announced officers "do not intend to take any further action" — that is, to enforce the law the epidemiologist had recommended for others. Within six months, he was back working as a government COVID advisor.

Americans are by now accustomed to the one-law-for-me-another-for-thee indulgences that some top elected officials have permitted themselves during COVID lockdowns, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's illicit trip to a hairdressing salon and California Gov. Gavin Newson's attendance at a friend's birthday celebration at a swanky restaurant in Napa Valley. 

While police remain reluctant to enforce the public health laws on their political masters, how much longer will voters tolerate such behaviour? 

Boris Johnson is hoping he will be forgiven — again — but his own MPs will be making that political calculation too, and they are his most immediate threat.