The British prime minister is facing a wave of public and political outrage over allegations that he and his staff flouted coronavirus lockdown rules by holding a drinks party in 2020 while Britons were barred by law from meeting up with more than one person
If Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain had hoped to put a perilous stretch of political and ethical blunders behind him this year, his hopes were dashed as he land himself in another major controversy — with calls of his resignation growing louder.
The British prime minister is facing a wave of public and political outrage over allegations that he and his staff flouted coronavirus lockdown rules by holding a drinks party in 2020 while Britons were barred by law from meeting up with more than one person outside their households.
During a career as a journalist and politician, Johnson has courted plenty of controversies. Here are some of the most contentious episodes in the life of the bombastic 55-year-old former foreign secretary and London mayor, who was named as Theresa May’s successor in 2019.
Cash for curtains
Johnson has faced months of allegations over refurbishment of the Downing Street apartment that prime ministers use as their official residence. Leaders are granted 30,000 pounds ($41,000) a year for upkeep, but after Johnson and his now-wife, Carrie, took up residence in 2019, they undertook a much more expensive overhaul, complete with designer wallpaper and pricey furniture.
Johnson’s office initially said he had paid for the redecoration himself, but it was later disclosed that it had been funded by a wealthy Conservative Party donor, David Brownlow.
Christopher Geidt, an ethics adviser appointed by Johnson, said the prime minister didn’t know where the money came from until the media reported it in early 2021, after which he paid it back.
“I have covered the costs. I have met the requirements I am obliged to meet in full,” Johnson said in April.
Geidt cleared the prime minister of wrongdoing in May.
After the media published WhatsApp exchanges between Johnson and Brownlow suggesting the prime minister did know where the money came from, Geidt last week expressed “grave concern” that information had been withheld from him. But he didn’t overturn his earlier ruling.
Separately, Britain’s political regulator, the Electoral Commission, fined the Conservative Party 17,800 pounds ($24,000) in December for failing properly to disclose details of the refurbishment money.
Among the most damaging allegations are that Johnson and his staff repeatedly flouted the strict restrictions the government imposed on the nation during the pandemic.
It started with the revelation that Johnson’s then-top aide, Dominic Cummings, drove 250 miles (400 kilometers) across England to his parents’ house in March 2020 while the country was under a “stay-at-home” order.
Johnson resisted calls to fire Cummings, but later fell out with his adviser, who left the government and has become a fierce critic. Cummings is among those alleging that government staff held a series of lockdown-breaching gatherings at the prime minister’s Downing Street office and residence, including Christmas parties in November and December 2020 and a garden party in May 2020 to which almost 100 people were invited. British media are reporting that the May party was attended by the prime minister and his wife.
Johnson and his spokespeople have refused to comment on the latest party allegations, citing an ongoing inquiry by a senior civil servant — but he has previously said he broke no rules.
Asked about the garden party on Monday, Johnson said: “All that, as you know, is the subject of a proper investigation by Sue Gray.”
Gray is expected to report her findings by the end of the month.
Lax lobbying rules
In November, the House of Commons’ standards committee said Conservative lawmaker Owen Paterson should be suspended for a month after he was found to have broken lobbying rules by advocating on behalf of two companies that were paying him.
Instead of backing the suspension — as has happened in all previous cases — Johnson’s government ordered Conservative lawmakers to block it and instead overhaul the entire standards procedure.
That sparked a furious outcry — from Conservatives as well as the opposition — and the government reversed course the next day. Paterson resigned, and in a special election to replace him, the Liberal Democrats ousted the Conservatives in a district that had long been a party stronghold.
Johnson insisted at the time that “the U.K. is not remotely a corrupt country.” But the Paterson affair prompted calls to tighten Britain’s loose rules on lobbying and lawmakers’ second jobs. That effort gathered steam after the revelation that one legislator had earned 400,000 pounds ($545,000) a year as a lawyer while also serving as a member of Parliament.
So far, no formal investigation into the rules has been called.
Accused of Brexit ‘lies’
Johnson, one of the most prominent faces in the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, helped to promote the controversial claim that Britain would no longer have to make weekly payments of 350 million pounds (USD 436 million) to the EU.
The use of the figure, which was emblazoned on the side of the Leave campaign’s touring bus, has been criticised as misleading because it represented the country’s gross contribution to the 28-nation bloc.
The net figure is far smaller because it also includes a budget rebate from Brussels as well as payments to Britain’s public sector from EU coffers.
“Get that lie off your bus,” he was told by a rival during a TV debate.
Johnson has nonetheless stood by the claim, telling a 2017 radio phone-in that it “represents the total sum that we do not control every week that is spent by Brussels”.
Johnson’s 2016 to 2018 tenure as foreign secretary featured a number of gaffes — the most high-profile of which jeopardised the case of a British-Iranian woman, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is being held in a Tehran jail.
The dual citizen, who worked for the Thomson Reuters Foundation — the media group’s philanthropic arm — was detained in 2016 as she left Tehran after taking her infant daughter to visit her family.
She was later jailed for five years for alleged sedition. She vehemently denies the charges.
During a 2017 hearing in the British parliament, Johnson stated that Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been training journalists in Iran, in what he later described as a “slip of the tongue”.
Iran’s judiciary promptly seized on the comments as proving that she was not on holiday, and Johnson was forced to call his Iranian counterpart to try to clarify the remarks.
He apologised in Britain’s parliament, retracting “any suggestion she was there in a professional capacity”, but resisted calls to resign over the error.