Fri, 24 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Boris Johnson Says He Takes "Full Responsibility" For Partygate But Issues Plea To "Move On"

7 min read

The Prime Minister has reiterated his apology for attending a birthday party in Downing Street during lockdown but defended his leadership after criticism in Sue Gray’s report.

Boris Johnson said he takes “full responsibility for everything that took place on my watch”, but in a bullish performance appeared not to accept there had been serious wrongdoing, despite numerous fines issued by police for a number of events.

The full report by Gray was published this morning after the completion of the Metropolitan police's inquiry last week. 

In his statement to the Commons shortly after it was made public, Johnson also took the opportunity to “correct the record” after he said in December 2021 that the rules had not been broken in Number 10 on the day of one of the events. 

“It was what I believed to be true," he said today. "It was certainly the case when I was present at gatherings to wish staff farewell.”

He added that “clearly this was not the case for some of those gatherings after I left and other gatherings when I was not even in the building".

"So I would like to take this opportunity to correct the record," Johnson said amid testy scenes in the Chamber, with Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle forced to intervene several times to quieten down the benches on both sides.

"And not in any sense to absolve myself of responsibility, which I take and have always taken, but simply to explain why I spoke as I did in this House.”

But Johnson appeared to play down the significance of the number of attendees at the events in relation to the "600 day" period over which they took place, and the size of Downing Street. 

"Gatherings on a total of eight dates have been found to be in breach of the regulations in a building that is 5,300 metres square across five floors, excluding the flats,” the prime minister explained. 

He also noted that officials in Number 10 were "permitted to continue attending their office for the purpose of work" under exemptions "applied to their work because of the nature of their jobs reporting directly to the Prime Minister".

Johnson repeatedly said he was "humbled" by the inquiry into the so-called 'partygate' saga, but repeatedly defended his own actions and tried to offer explanations for details contained in the report.

He said that while he did “briefly” attend some gatherings to thank staff for their service, he did so as a demonstration of "the essential duties of leadership" in order to ensure staff felt "their contributions have been appreciated”.

In detailed accounts of several events that took place in Downing Street in lockdown, the report states that staff drank to excess and left the building in the early hours of the morning on a number of occasions.

Cleaners reported finding red wine spilled on the walls the morning after one of the gatherings, while one member of staff was sick while two others got into an altercation at another.

Johnson admitted that Gray's report confirms “some of these gatherings then went on far longer than was necessary” and were “clearly in breach of the rules”.

He told MPs: “This is not to mitigate or to extenuate, but I had no knowledge of those subsequent proceedings because I simply wasn’t there."

In the report, Gray said she was "made aware of multiple examples of a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff".

In his Commons statement, Johnson took the opportunity to address the treatment of staff, which Gray had described as "unacceptable".

“I have been as surprised and disappointed as anyone else in this house as the revelations have unfolded, and frankly, I have been appalled by some of the behaviour – particularly in the treatment of the security and the cleaning staff," Johnson told MPs. 

“I would like to apologise to those members of staff, and I expect anyone who behaved in that way to apologise to them as well.”

The prime minister concluded his statement by issuing a plea for a line to be drawn under the scandal, which has dominated headlines for almost six months.

"I hope very much that now that [Sue Gray] has reported we will be able to move on and focus on the priorities of the British people," Johnson told MPs. 

“I commissioned this report to set the record straight and allow us all to move on. I accept full responsibility for my failings. I am humbled by the whole experience and we have learned our lesson.”

Following the statement a raft of Johnson's Cabinet minister began tweeting supportively, emphasising that he had apologised and taken responsibility for the saga and now wanted to move on to dealing with the big issues facing the country.

Deputy PM Dominic Raab said his boss was “implementing all Sue Gray's recommendations”, adding: “Now we need to get on and deliver for the British people - growing our economy to tackle the cost of living, funding the NHS to clear covid backlogs and cutting crime to make our streets safer.”

“The Prime Minister has apologised and taken responsibility for the mistakes that have been made,” the foreign secretary Liz Truss posted.

“I back him 100% - we now need to drive our economy forward post-COVID and ensure Putin loses in Ukraine.”

Labour leader Keir Starmer told the Commons he believed the Sue Gray report “laid bare the rot" in Number 10, and called on Tory MPs to tell Johnson "the game is up" and it is "time to pack his bags”.

He called the document a “monument to the hubris and the arrogance of a government that believed it was one rule for them, and another rule for everyone else”.

"It is now impossible to defend the Prime Minister's words to this House. This is about trust," Starmer continued. 

"Because during that May 20 press conference, the British public were told normal life as we know it is a long way off. But that wasn't the case in Number 10.

"Even now after 126 fines, they think it is everyone else's fault but theirs. They expect others to take the blame whilst they cling on. They pretend that the Prime Minister has somehow been exonerated, as if the fact that he only broke the law once is worthy of praise.

"The truth is they set the bar for his conduct lower than a snake's belly and now they expect the rest of us to congratulate him as he stumbles over it.”

Starmer said the values symbolised by the famous black door at Number 10 need to be restored. 

“You cannot be a law maker and a law breaker,” he added. 

Johnson became defensive and accused the Labour leader of “sniping from the sidelines and veering from one position to the next” during the pandemic.

The PM said the leader of the opposition was failing to show “common sense” and of being “sanctimonious” in his criticism, to cheers from his own MPs.

Describing Starmer as a “gaseous Zeppelin” whose pomposity has been punctured, Johnson also referenced the investigation by Durham police into Starmer for a potential lockdown breach of his own when he was photographed drinking beer during a campaign event in 2021. Leaked documents later showed that Labour staff had eaten takeaway curry during the event. 

“Sir Beer Korma is currently failing to hold himself to the same high standards he demanded of me," the PM added.

Starmer has vowed to resign as leader of the Labour party is he is fined once Durham police conclude their investigation. 

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