Tue, 24 May 2022

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday rejected opposition calls to resign for attending lockdown parties but accepted that, as a rule, ministers should lose their jobs if they knowlingly misled parliament.

The investigation, led by civil servant Sue Gray, will shed light on multiple gatherings that are alleged to have taken place at 10 Downing Street while the UK was under strict Covid-19 regulations, and may fuel growing pressure on the prime minister to resign.

Johnson has consistently denied any wrongdoing, even though one of the events being investigated is a birthday party held in his honour and allegedly attended by 30 people.

The Metropolitan Police have also begun their own investigation into possible criminal breaches of Covid regulations by Johnson and his team over the past two years.

The explosive confirmation of the police investigation could complicate the release of Gray's report, but opposition parties insisted on its publication in full.

Johnson, in a bad-tempered session of weekly questions in parliament on Wednesday, said he could not comment further on the "partygate" revelations pending the investigations.

But he said the government - from its pandemic response to economic recovery, and "bringing the West together" against Russia's threats to Ukraine - was not going anywhere.

"We've got the big calls right and we - and in particular I - are getting on with the job," the prime minister said.

Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer anticipated that the release of Gray's report was imminent and that Johnson would give a statement in response "later today or tomorrow".

He called anew on the Conservative leader to resign, arguing Johnson had "shown nothing but contempt for the decency, honesty and respect that define this country".

Snap election?

Gray, described as an iron-willed enforcer of probity in government, has been investigating revelations that Downing Street staff held frequent parties over the past two years while the rest of the country was in lockdown.

Johnson - the populist architect of Britain's Brexit split from the EU - has faced public outrage over the parties.

The prime minister attended several events, including a crowded gathering held for his birthday in June 2020 at a time when indoor socialising was banned.

Many on social media have highlighted how they missed significant life events themselves out of respect for social distancing rules, and were unable to comfort sick and dying loved ones struck down with Covid-19.

At least seven backbench Conservative MPs have called publicly for Johnson's resignation. A total of 54 letters are required to trigger a party vote of no confidence.

But cabinet ally Jacob Rees-Mogg warned wavering Tories that any successor would face strong pressure to call a snap election -- a perilous step with Labour surging to a double-digit in opinion polls.

"It is my view that we have moved, for better or worse, to essentially a presidential system," he told BBC television.

"And that therefore the mandate is personal rather than entirely party, and that any prime minister would be very well advised to seek a fresh mandate."

'PM's peril'

Wednesday's headlines provided more bad news for Johnson, whose popularity in opinion polls has plunged amid the scandal. The Guardian's front-page headline spoke of "PM's peril," while the left-leaning Daily Mirror said bluntly: "Number's up, PM." The right-of-center Daily Mail differed, declaring Britain: "A nation that has lost all sense of proportion."

London's Metropolitan Police force said "a number of events" at Johnson's Downing Street office and other government buildings met the force's criteria for investigating the "most serious and flagrant" breaches of coronavirus rules.

Johnson and his allies have tried, without much success, to calm a scandal that is consuming government energies that could be better spent confronting the international crisis over Russia's military build-up near Ukraine and a far-from-finished coronavirus pandemic.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

Originally published on France24

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