Boris Johnson Faces Rising Pressure Over Lockdown Party
LONDON—British Prime Minister
faced rising political pressure over allegations that he broke lockdown rules by attending a drinks party in Downing Street, as some of his Conservative lawmakers strategized how to oust the British leader and one defected to the opposition Labour Party.
Mr. Johnson has acknowledged attending a gathering billed as a “bring your own booze” event in the Downing Street garden during lockdown in May 2020, a time when Britons were only allowed to meet one other person outside. The prime minister has apologized for the incident, adding that he thought it was a work event and wasn’t told it was against the rules.
The Conservative Party has been sliding in public opinion polls, with surveys showing popular anger over the incident, which has been dubbed “Partygate” by the British tabloids.
A small group of Tory lawmakers who entered Parliament for the first time following Mr. Johnson’s landslide election victory in 2019 are leading efforts to potentially oust their leader. Other more long-standing Members of Parliament appeared Wednesday to lose patience in Mr. Johnson. “In the name of god, go,” Conservative lawmaker and former cabinet minister
told Mr. Johnson during a febrile meeting in the House of Commons.
Mr. Johnson was dealt another blow when one of his lawmakers defected to the opposition Labour Party. In a letter to the prime minister,
said he could no longer support a government “that has shown itself consistently out of touch” with his constituents. Mr. Wakeford had previously said he submitted a letter of no confidence in Mr. Johnson.
Many other lawmakers, however, say they are holding back from passing judgment until an internal probe into the matter of lockdown parties is concluded.
Since the Conservatives enjoy a solid majority in Parliament, any effort to unseat Mr. Johnson will be the result of a party coup. The Conservatives hold 359 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons.
The process of defenestrating a sitting party leader requires a sustained revolt, and the scale of efforts to oust Mr. Johnson remains unclear.
Under Conservative Party rules, 15% of lawmakers must submit letters of no confidence in their leader to a special committee to trigger a vote.
A majority of Conservative Party lawmakers must then vote to replace him if he is to be removed. Only
the chairman of the 1922 Committee that oversees the selection of the party’s leaders, knows the true number of no-confidence letters submitted.
So far, six Conservative lawmakers have publicly stated they have submitted no-confidence letters.
On Wednesday, Mr. Johnson launched a pugnacious defense of his government’s record in office as he sought to rally wavering lawmakers. “I am intensely proud of what this government has done,” in terms of the vaccine rollout and decisions on opening up the economy, he told Parliament. Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer attacked what he said were “absurd and frankly unbelievable” explanations for the prime minister’s attendance at the garden party during lockdown.
“I suspect there are lots of colleagues that are reflecting on what they have heard in their constituencies and are feeling under a lot of pressure right now because the British public are absolutely furious with what they’ve heard,”
a government minister said on Wednesday. However he added that “this doesn’t feel like the time to be changing our prime minister if you ask me.”
Efforts to shore up Mr. Johnson’s standing have been dented by a stream of embarrassing revelations.
Mr. Johnson recently apologized to Queen Elizabeth II after it emerged that staffers in his office held a party in Downing Street the night before the funeral of her husband Prince Philip in April 2021. Britons were moved last year by images of the queen sitting alone during the funeral service, which was held at a time when lockdown rules sharply curtailed the numbers of people permitted to gather together.
Mr. Johnson’s former chief of staff, alleges that the prime minister lied to Parliament by denying he knew the May 2020 drinks party was a party.
Mr. Cummings wrote in his blog this week that he recalled at the time complaining to Mr. Johnson that his principal private secretary Martin Reynolds had organized drinks inviting around 100 people.
“Martin’s invited the building to a drinks party, this is what I’m talking about, you’ve got to grip this madhouse,” Mr. Cummings recalls telling Mr. Johnson.
Mr. Johnson denies he misled Parliament or that he knew the event was a party. The U.K.’s ministerial code of conduct states that if a minister knowingly misleads Parliament, he or she is expected to resign.
Political analysts say it is hard to gauge the scale of the rebellion given the secrecy around the letters of no confidence. The current Conservative uprising in Parliament has been dubbed by lawmakers the “Pork Pie plot” as a key lawmaker behind the efforts represents a district famed for its pork pies. In Britain, a “porky pie” is also rhyming slang for a lie.
The lawmakers involved were elected to Parliament in 2019 when Mr. Johnson won an election in part by convincing blue collar workers in northern England to back the Conservative Party. A poll by JL Partners published Wednesday showed that Mr. Johnson’s personal net approval rating among these voters had dropped to minus 35 following the scandal.
On Tuesday, Mr. Johnson gave a short TV interview, during which he stood masked and with his arms clasped behind his back, repeatedly apologizing and appearing teary eyed when asked about his apology to the queen.
He has urged party members and the British public to await the findings of an inquiry being conducted now by a senior civil servant into several drinks events that took place in Downing Street during various lockdowns. A government spokesman said he didn’t know when the report would be published.
Write to Max Colchester at [email protected]
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