LONDON — U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his team are waking to a barrage of scathing headlines in the British press on Tuesday following the early findings of an inquiry into various parties held within Downing Street and government buildings during Covid-19 lockdowns.
The report, carried out by senior civil servant Sue Gray and published in a limited form on Monday, described “failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times” and said that some of the behavior was “difficult to justify.”
The 12-page report was the result of several weeks of investigations by Gray, in which hundreds of pictures and documents were gathered and which have now been passed to the Metropolitan Police as it carries out its own probe into alleged Covid breaches by government staff.
Weeks of reports of parties and gatherings — some alleged and others admitted to, and with several events attended by Johnson — have greatly riled the British press, public and politicians from across the political spectrum. That anger and indignation reflected in headlines on Tuesday.
The Times‘ headline on Tuesday reflected on the police inquiry, noting “Police investigate PM’s four lockdown parties” in its headline as it highlighted that four alleged gatherings attended by the prime minister himself were among eight being investigated by the Met.
The left-leaning Mirror newspaper was most critical of Johnson, its headline a simple and cutting “Zero Shame,” as it summarized the ongoing lockdown party scandal in numbers:
“12 parties probed by cops, 3 attended by the PM, 1 was in his own flat, 300 pictures handed over …and still zero shame” giving its damning verdict on the crisis as the Metropolitan Police confirmed on Monday that it will be investigating eight of the 12 dates considered in Sue Gray’s report.
The police added they were reviewing “more than 300 images and over 500 pages of information” and would seek accounts of what happened from relevant individuals.
The Metro, a free newspaper widely distributed to commuters, headlined with Gray’s main findings: “A failure of leadership” alongside a picture of a beleaguered Johnson, noting that Gray’s “‘update gives a damning verdict on boozy pandemic parties at No.10.”
Gray’s report is expected to be published in full after the police conclude their own inquiry but it made clear that lockdown parties “should not have been allowed to take place” while others “should not have been allowed to develop as they did.”
There has been a chorus of calls for Gray’s report to be published in full, with the government responding that an updated report would be published one the police inquiry is finished.
‘Tories turn on leadership’
Many politicians on all sides of the political spectrum have expressed anger and dismay at Johnson’s leadership but the prime minister has, so far, refused to stand down and a Conservative Party threshold for a vote of no confidence has not yet been reached.
The i newspaper headlined with its view that the “PM pleads for his job” while the left-leaning Guardian newspaper reflected a growing cacophony of dismay among Johnson’s own Conservative lawmakers, its headline noting that “Tories turn on leadership after Gray report” as it described “furious MPs” having forced Johnson into a U-turn after he had initially refused to answer on whether Gray’s report would be published in full.
The right-leaning Telegraph newspaper also reflected on this apparent capitulation over a fuller publication of Gray’s report, noting in its own headline that “PM to ask Gray for new report” in order, it said, “to appease backbenchers.”
On Monday, Johnson told a packed House of Commons that he was “very, very sorry for misjudgments that may have been made by me or anybody else in Number 10 and the Cabinet Office” but said no conclusions should be drawn from the fact that the police are investigating.
If there isn’t a no-confidence vote in Johnson (a vote that is only held if 54 of his own MPs submit letters to the 1922 Committee, an influential group of backbench lawmakers that oversees leadership challenges) then the next big test of public sentiment toward the government will be at local elections in May.
Roger Gale, Conservative MP for North Thanet, is among the Conservative lawmakers who have submitted letters of no confidence to the 1922 Committee. He told CNBC that the “prime minister has spent some weeks now saying ‘wait for Sue Gray’ then he said yesterday over and over again … ‘Wait for the Metropolitan Police [report]’,” Gale noted.
“There is a limit to how far he can kick the can down the road, I think he’s running out of road,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” on Tuesday.
A sign that the Conservatives’ voter base is angry at the government came on Tuesday as the Daily Mail, an erstwhile supporter of the prime minister and read by many Conservative-leaning members of the public, appeared fed up with the “partygate” debacle, with its own headline a no-nonsense: “Now Publish the Whole Damn Thing.”
Papers reflect public feeling
Many members of the public are scornful of the government for failing to follow stringent Covid lockdown rules that it set for everyone else, particularly as many sacrificed their freedoms and time with loved ones.
“The hardship under which citizens across the country worked, lived and sadly even died while observing the government’s regulations and guidance rigorously are known only too well,” Gray wrote in her report on Monday.
“Against the backdrop of the pandemic, when the government was asking citizens to accept far-reaching restrictions on their lives, some of the behavior surrounding these gatherings is difficult to justify,” she added.
Addressing Parliament on Monday, Johnson said he understood public anger, insisting: “I get it and I will fix it. And I want to say. And I want to say to the people of this country, I know what the issue is.”
The Daily Express, a supporter of Johnson, is likely to be one of the more palatable papers for officials on Tuesday, its new edition hinting at Johnson being given another chance. It states: “Yes PM, You Got It Wrong … Now Get It Right!”
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