Even the joyful news of a healthy, new-born baby can’t distract from the fact that Boris Johnson’s bad week isn’t getting any better, politically speaking.
The day after his former press secretary was forced to resign for making jokes about staff breaking coronavirus rules and having a party while the rest of the country couldn’t, more allegations of wrongdoing are dogging the British Prime Minister and his inner circle.
Thursday morning’s papers were full of further leaks about alleged gatherings held in 10 Downing Street late last year, in other government buildings and at his Conservative Party’s headquarters.
Separately, the Electoral Commission announced it is fining the Conservative Party £17,800 ($23,950) “after failing to accurately report a donation and keep a proper accounting record.”
The investigation was in relation to reports that Johnson had used party donor money to refurbish his apartment in Downing Street. Johnson has insisted that he covered the costs for any work done. He has not responded to the commission’s announcement.
And all this is happening at the same time that Johnson is trying to implement new Covid-19 restrictions on a public that is angry with the government’s alleged wrongdoing and very worried about losing another Christmas to the pandemic.
The allegations that Johnson and his staff attended parties in Downing Street in the winter of 2020, while the rest of the country was in lockdown, are by far the most immediately damning allegations facing the Prime Minister.
Multiple government officials have previously told CNN that at least two social gatherings were held on November 27 and December 18.
Now allegations are being reported in British media of at least three more social events.
The BBC and The Times are reporting a party in the Downing Street residence of Boris and Carrie Johnson on November 13. Neither she nor her spokesperson were available to comment today, as she gave birth to a daughter this morning.
Second, multiple British media are reporting a leaving party for Lee Cain, Johnson’s former director of communications, also on November 13.
Third, Downing Street confirms to CNN that a Christmas quiz took place in December 2020. The prime minister’s official spokesman described it as virtual from home and socially distanced if people participated from the office.
Downing Street told CNN that it was not responding to questions beyond its previous claims that no rules had been broken now that an official investigation was underway. The investigation will look at three events from last year: the alleged party in Downing Street on November 27; a gathering at the Department for Education on December 10; and the alleged party in No. 10 on December 18.
In parliament on Wednesday, Johnson had announced that his Cabinet Secretary would conduct an investigation. He apologized “unreservedly for the offense” the leaked video had caused, but said he had been “repeatedly assured that there was no party and no rules were broken.” Johnson said that if rules were broken “there will be disciplinary action for all those involved.” He added that he was “furious” when he saw the video.
But according to a former No. 10 official, the party in the residence did happen. “That had music and the works. Everyone was talking about it the next day. It would definitely fall under most people’s definition of a party.”
As for the others, the former official says it really comes down to what you would define as a party.
According to three current and former officials who were present, the Prime Minister gave a short impromptu speech at a going away party for Cleo Watson on November 27, 2020. They say that Johnson was on the way to his flat inside Downing Street, saw that staff had gathered and delivered a few words before going upstairs. Downing Street has denied any rules were broken.
“I remember walking through No. 10 and Boris giving a talk to people who were gathered. It didn’t strike me as a party per se,” said the former No. 10 official.
Allies of Cain deny that any party was held to mark his departure; Downing Street has confirmed a quiz took place but said people were at their desks or attending virtually.
Multiple sources who worked inside No. 10 at the time say that there were multiple occasions when they would order in food and drinks because they were working until the early hours of the morning.
Most of this ultimately comes down to what the public is willing to believe and exactly how one person defines a party.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said on Thursday he understood the outrage over the Christmas party video leaked this week, and admitted he did not know if the rules were followed.
“I’m pleased the Prime Minister has asked for an investigation and I can see also why so many people would have been upset by that video,” he told British broadcaster Sky News.
Javid was meant to attend media interviews Wednesday but said he failed to do so because he was upset by the video. “I didn’t appear because I saw that video. The video you just played again. It upset me, it upset a lot of people I think across the country,” he said. He said other people had originally assured him there was no party and that no rules were broken. “I don’t know what actually happened or not,” Javid told BBC radio.
The risk for Johnson is that the public has cooled on him significantly since his landslide election win in 2019. Scandal after scandal has damaged his credibility. His personal approval ratings are falling, and polls are emerging that say people want him to resign.
While Johnson is in no real immediate danger of losing his job – his party is too weak to dislodge him and there is no election any time soon – stories that might not have cut through in the past are starting to stick.
The Prime Minister clearly wants this story to move on and for the public to instead focus on the so-called “Plan B” for winter: guidance on mask wearing, vaccine passports and all the rest.
But it’s going to be very hard for a leader so weighed down by scandals to say anything that the public will take seriously while his reputation is in such a state. And at this point in time, with so many people willing to believe that these parties took place, it’s going to take some very solid evidence to change people’s minds – evidence that might not even exist.
This story has been updated to correct the date of the alleged leaving party for Lee Cain.