Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson has issued a public apology to MPs and admitted he attended a garden party in Downing Street when England was in lockdown.
He claimed the garden was being used as an “extension of the office” when he joined staff at the gathering on May 20, 2020, but acknowledged that millions of Britons who were barred from meeting loved ones at that time would see it differently.
After facing calls to resign and coming under pressure to “come clean” about the events, Mr Johnson put on a brave face in Parliament on Wednesday.
“I want to apologise. I know that millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months,” he said in the three-minute speech.
“I know the anguish they have been through – unable to mourn their relatives, unable to live their lives as they want or to do the things they love.
“And I know the rage they feel with me and with the government I lead when they think that in Downing Street itself, the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules.”
He said that while he could not pre-empt the findings of the inquiry into the parties, he had enough information to say “there were things we simply did not get right” for which he “must take responsibility”.
The prime minister said the garden of No 10 Downing Street is an “extension of the office” and has been “in constant use” during the pandemic owing to the reduced chance of catching the coronavirus outdoors.
He was trying to justify his attendance at least two gatherings there.
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross became the first high-profile Conservative to urge the Prime Minister to stand down.
Speaking to STV News, he said: “I said, yesterday, if the Prime Minister attended this gathering, event, in Downing Street on May 20 2020, he could not continue as Prime Minister so, regretfully, I have to say his position is no longer tenable.”
“What we also heard from the Prime Minister today was an apology and he said with hindsight he would have done things differently, which for me is an acceptance from the Prime Minister that it was wrong and therefore, I don’t want to be in this position, but I am in this position now, where I don’t think he can continue as leader of the Conservatives.”
On May 15, 2020 Mr Johnson and his partner, Carrie, were pictured in the garden with at least 17 staff as they relaxed in the afternoon sun. Downing Street has said the event, at which guests were served cheese and wine, was a “work meeting”.
Five days later, another gathering was held in the garden. More than 100 staff were invited to the “bring your own booze” picnic by Martin Reynolds, a former ambassador to Libya. Up to 40 people are thought to have attended.
On Wednesday, Mr Johnson confirmed he was one of them.
He said he went into the garden shortly after 6pm that day “to thank groups of staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later”.
At the time, he said, he “believed implicitly that this was a work event” but in hindsight he “should have said: ‘Everyone, back inside’.”
“I should have found some other way to thank them,” he said.
Mr Johnson said that “even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance”, the party would not be seen in the same light by the public.
At the time of the parties, ordinary citizens were forbidden from meeting anyone from another household.
“To them and to this House I offer my heartfelt apologies,” the prime minister said.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer pulled no punches when he went on the attack.
He said that after being hit with “months of deceit and deception”, Britons had been offered nothing but a “pathetic spectacle for a man who has run out of road”.
He was referring to Mr Johnson’s continued insistence that Covid-19 rules were followed at all times in Downing Street.
There were laughs from MPs on the Labour benches when the opposition leader ridiculed Mr Johnson’s “defence that he didn’t realise that he was at a party”.
Mr Starmer said the prime minister’s version of events was “so ridiculous that it’s actually offensive to the British public” and called him a “man without shame”.
He said Mr Johnson was “finally forced to admit what everyone knew” about what happened in Downing Street during the first lockdown, and asked: “Is he now going to do the decent thing and resign?”
Mr Johnson skirted around Mr Starmer’s question, instead saying: “I regret very much that we did not do things differently.”
Ian Blackford, the Scottish National Party’s leader in London, accused the prime minister of “betraying the public trust, of treating the public with contempt, of breaking the laws set by his own government” and echoed calls for him to step down.
“He does what he wants and he gets away with it every time,” said Mr Blackford. He warned the prime minister that he “can’t get away with it again”.
After Mr Johnson batted away his call to resign, Mr Blackford said it was clear he “feels no shame” for his conduct.
Labour MP Chris Bryant questioned “how stupid” the prime minister thought the British public were.
The MP for Rhondda, South Wales, who is chairman of the Commons Committee on Standards, said: “So, the prime minister didn’t spot that he was at a social event. That’s the excuse isn’t it? Come off it.
“I mean, how stupid does the prime minister think the British people are? The worst of it is he’s already managed to completely destroy Allegra Stratton’s career, he’s tarnished the reputation of Lord Geidt and now he’s making fools of every single MP who cheered him earlier, every single one who goes out on the radio and television to defend this shower of shenanigans.
“Would it not be absolutely despicable if, in the search for a scapegoat, some junior member of staff ends up losing their job, but he kept his?”
Mr Bryant was referring to a former aide of the prime minister who stood down after a video emerged of her joking about an alleged lockdown-breaking party in Downing Street. Mr Johnson had refused to stand by her, instead saying he was “furious” about the footage.
In response, Mr Johnson said he was speaking publicly to “make amends”.
Lord Geidt, the prime minister’s Independent Adviser on Ministerial Standards, publicly rebuked the government the handling of revelations that a Conservative member of the parliament’s upper house had paid for renovations to Mr Johnson’s home.
He said an exchange between the politicians should have been disclosed.