By William James, Kylie MacLellan and Elizabeth Piper
LONDON (Reuters) -British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced renewed calls to resign on Monday after a report found that alcohol-fuelled parties at his offices and residence when COVID-19 lockdown rules were in force should never have taken place.
The report by senior civil servant Sue Gray into the lockdown gatherings – at a time when Britons were all but banned from social mixing to tackle the coronavirus pandemic – pointed to “serious failures of leadership” at the heart of the British government.
She condemned some of the behaviour in government as being “difficult to justify”, saying “the excessive consumption of alcohol is not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time”.
“Some of the events should not have been allowed to take place,” she said. “Other events should not have been allowed to develop as they did.”
However, she said she could not offer a “meaningful report” in order not to prejudice a separate police investigation. But she disclosed that detectives were looking into rule-breaking events, including one in Johnson’s apartment above his office.
Johnson’s office said Gray would be asked to update her report once the police investigation has concluded and that the update would be published.
The saga has become the gravest threat to Johnson’s premiership, already under scrutiny for a series of scandals and his handling of the COVID-19 response. Opposition politicians and some members of his own Conservative Party have called on him to resign.
Johnson made a statement and answered questions for almost two hours in parliament on Monday afternoon following the report’s publication to apologise again and to pledge to make changes at his office.
“I want to say sorry. I get it and I will fix it,” he said in a raucous debate, when he was challenged by some Conservative lawmakers.
One, Aaron Bell, fought back tears as he recounted the funeral held for his grandmother during the COVID lockdown.
“She was a wonderful woman … I drove for three hours … only 10 people at the funeral. Many people who loved her had to watch online. I didn’t hug my siblings. I didn’t hug my parents,” he said. “Does the prime minister think I am a fool?”
Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, accused him of blaming everyone else but himself.
“There can be no doubt that the prime minister himself is now subject to criminal investigation,” Starmer told parliament.
The leader of the Scottish National Party, Ian Blackford, was forced to leave the House of Commons after accusing Johnson of misleading parliament, an offence for which the prime minister would be expected to resign.
EXCESSIVE CONSUMPTION OF ALCOHOL
Gray’s report looked into what has become weeks of a steady drip of stories about events in Downing Street during the lockdown, with reports of aides stuffing a suitcase full of alcohol and dancing until the early hours.
However, parts of the report were not published due to the ongoing police investigation, which could take months. The officer in charge said detectives were looking at 500 pieces of paper and more than 300 photographs. [S8N2U000S]
“At least some of the gatherings in question represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time,” Gray wrote.
“Against the backdrop of the pandemic, when the Government was asking citizens to accept far-reaching restrictions on their lives, some of the behaviour surrounding these gatherings is difficult to justify,” it said.
Johnson’s spokesman said “steps will be taken to ensure every government department has a clear robust policy in place covering the consumption of alcohol in the workplace”.
Gray was asked to investigate more than a dozen gatherings in Downing Street at a time when millions were kept apart from friends and relatives for months because of the restrictions.
Since the police investigation was opened last week, Gray said she could only refer to four events, rather than the 16 she initially considered to make sure she did not prejudice the probe.
“Unfortunately, this necessarily means that I am extremely limited in what I can say about those events and it is not possible at present to provide a meaningful report setting out and analysing the extensive factual information I have been able to gather,” she wrote.
One of the events which she was forced to leave out was a gathering on Nov. 13 in Johnson’s Downing Street apartment above government offices, and one of the most damaging allegations of a “bring your own booze” party on May 20, 2020.
The prime minister’s spokesman has said Johnson does not believe he broke the law. Johnson has offered a range of answers to some of the allegations from arguing that Downing Street had always followed the rules, to not being aware of a party.
The alleged parties are the latest in a series of scandals to tarnish Johnson, who has come under fire over the funding of a pricey flat refurbishment, allegedly prioritising the evacuation of animals from Afghanistan, and the awarding of COVID-19 contracts.
Johnson has apologised for errors that were made, but has repeatedly rejected calls to quit.
But the limited report may hand Johnson and his supporters more time to try to persuade colleagues not to trigger a confidence vote in him.
It might not be easy. One Conservative lawmaker said he no longer supported him and several others were openly hostile.
“The backbenchers of the Conservative Party need no reminders about how to dispose of a failing leader,” said Conservative lawmaker Bernard Jenkin.
(Writing by Elizabeth Piper and William James, Editing by Michael Holden, Angus MacSwan and Bernadette Baum)