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Boris Johnson apologised for attending a “bring your own booze” gathering in the garden of No 10 during England’s first lockdown although he insisted he believed it had been a “work event”.
The Prime Minister acknowledged the public “rage” over the incident as he battled to save his premiership, with Downing Street insisting he was never sent an email inviting people to “socially distanced drinks” in the garden.
Mr Johnson told MPs that he attended the May 20 2020 gathering for around 25 minutes to “thank groups of staff” but “with hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside”.
The admission that he attended the event led to calls for him to resign from leading opposition figures, while Tory MPs also acknowledged the end may be in sight for his premiership.
The Prime Minister acknowledged public anger, saying: “I know the rage they feel with me and with the Government I lead when they think in Downing Street itself the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules.”
He said an inquiry was examining the situation but he had “learned enough to know there were things we simply did not get right and I must take responsibility”.
Downing Street refused to say whether his then fiancee Carrie Symonds had attended the gathering, if Mr Johnson had noticed tables laden with food and drink or if he had brought a bottle of his own into the garden.
All such questions were a matter for senior official Sue Gray’s inquiry, the Prime Minister’s press secretary told reporters.
But she insisted Mr Johnson had not been sent the invitation email from his principal private secretary Martin Reynolds encouraging colleagues to “bring your own booze” to the garden.
At just after 6pm on the day of the event, the time the invitation had specified for people to gather to “make the most of the lovely weather”, Mr Johnson said he went into the garden to thank staff for their efforts and stayed or 25 minutes.
“I believed implicitly that this was a work event,” he said.
“With hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside.
“I should have found some other way to thank them.
“I should have recognised that even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance, there are millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way, people who have suffered terribly, people who were forbidden for meeting loved ones at all inside or outside, and to them and to this House I offer my heartfelt apologies.”
Mr Johnson’s press secretary insisted that he was not a liar and “he is not resigning”.
Veteran Tory MP Sir Roger Gale said it was already clear that Mr Johnson misled Parliament and that politically he was a “dead man walking” and it was either up to him to quit or be forced out by the backbench Conservative 1922 Committee.
Sir Roger told the PA news agency: “The Prime Minister has said what he has said at the despatch box: he spent 25 minutes at what he described as a work event.
“Well, I’m sorry, you don’t have ‘bring a bottle’ work events in Downing Street, so far as I’m aware.
“And you don’t have ‘bring a bottle’ work events that are advertised or invited by the Prime Minister’s private secretary.”
Sir Roger, a prominent critic of Mr Johnson, added: “I think the time has come for either the Prime Minister to go with dignity as his choice, or for the 1922 Committee to intervene.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called on the Prime Minister to resign.
“After months of deceit and deception, the pathetic spectacle of a man who has run out of road,” Sir Keir said.
“His defence … that he didn’t realise he was at a party is so ridiculous that it’s actually offensive to the British public.”
He added: “The party’s over, Prime Minister.
“The only question is will the British public kick him out, will his party kick him out, or will he do the decent thing and resign?”
The embattled Prime Minister also faced calls to quit from the SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford and Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey.
Hannah Brady, from the campaign group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said that, if Mr Johnson does not step down, then his MPs have a “moral duty” to remove him.
Her father Shaun Brady, 55, died just a few days before the “bring your own booze” event and his death certificate was signed on the day it was held.
The Commons chamber was packed in anticipation of Mr Johnson’s first public response to the leaked email about the May 20 2020 event although Chancellor Rishi Sunak, viewed as a potential successor as Tory leader, was notably absent on a visit to Devon.
Mr Johnson’s former aide, Dominic Cummings, now one of the Prime Minister’s fiercest opponents, said the claim that the event was “technically within the rules” is “bullshit”.
But he said Mr Johnson’s only alternative would be to admit that he broke the rules and resign.
In a sign of the public clamour for answers from the Prime Minister, ITV’s This Morning cut live to the House of Commons to hear his apology.