Boris Johnson apologizes to queen for Downing Street parties
Boris Johnson’s office apologized to Queen Elizabeth II following revelations of partying in Downing Street the night before her husband’s funeral, heaping further pressure on the prime minister as his government faces a string of allegations over pandemic rule-breaking.
The Daily Telegraph on Friday said that on April 16, 2021, two parties were held in Downing Street to mark the departures of two staffers, on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral. One of them was for Johnson’s former spokesman James Slack. At the time, indoor mixing between households was still banned.
“It’s deeply regrettable that this took place at a time of national mourning,” Johnson’s spokesman, Jamie Davies, told reporters at a regular briefing, declining to comment on whether the government believes the events also breached COVID regulations. “We acknowledge the significant public anger.”
The report in the Telegraph, which traditionally leans in favor of the ruling Conservative Party, is especially sensitive for Johnson because the queen was famously photographed sitting masked and alone at her husband’s funeral service, in accordance with the pandemic rules at the time.
Asked if the premier would apologize personally to the queen, Davies replied: “Number 10 has apologized to the Palace.” He said Johnson was not in Downing Street when the events took place.
Even so, the apology to the queen is likely to exacerbate the anger among Tory MPs, some of whom already want him to resign after he finally acknowledged he’d attended a drinks party in the Downing Street garden in May 2020 — also a time when such gatherings were banned under COVID rules.
The prime minister told the House of Commons on Wednesday he thought it was a “work” event.
Many Tories are waiting on the verdict of a senior civil servant’s probe before deciding whether they still back Johnson’s leadership. Sue Gray has been charged with investigating the various events held in Downing Street and around Whitehall during the pandemic — including the event attended by Johnson and the two latest gatherings reported by the Telegraph.
In a rare boost for Johnson during the toughest week of his premiership, The Times newspaper reported Friday her inquiry is expected to conclude there was no criminality involved.
If true — and the Times gave no indication as to how close to Gray its sources were — it would mean London’s Metropolitan Police, which faced being dragged into a scenario with potentially huge political ramifications, will also not formally investigate. The force said late Thursday it would consider any evidence handed to them by Gray but would not open an inquiry beforehand.
“Officers do not normally investigate breaches of coronavirus regulations when they are reported long after they are said to have taken place,” it said.
Much is therefore riding on the outcome of Gray’s probe. In the meantime, Johnson is trying to shift the public focus onto the U.K.’s emergence from a record wave of COVID infections fueled by the omicron variant.
During his Parliament appearance on Wednesday, Johnson described the U.K.’s vaccination program as the “fastest booster roll-out in Europe” and the reason the country is now “one of the most open economies” in the region.
As Johnson starts to pivot toward what he calls learning to live with COVID, the government this week cut the number of days those testing positive are required to self-isolate to five days from seven.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid also indicated in Parliament on Thursday that remaining pandemic rules — which include mandatory COVID passes to gain access to venues and large events — are unlikely to be renewed when they expire on Jan. 26.
The big question facing Johnson and his Tories is whether that will be enough to persuade the public to look past the allegations of partying in Downing Street, which have so damaged the party’s standing in the polls.
Another potential wildcard is whether more allegations emerge. Asked Friday if he could rule out further Downing Street parties coming to light, Johnson’s spokesman declined to comment pending the outcome of the government’s probe.