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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been shadowed by career-threatening scandal for months — but so far he has escaped unscathed.
This week he faces one more threat to his political future: a comprehensive report into lockdown-breaching parties in government offices that is expected to be published within days.
Senior civil servant Sue Gray is due to release her findings on “partygate,” the scandal over more than a dozen gatherings in Johnson’s No. 10 Downing St. residence and nearby buildings that took place when coronavirus restrictions barred people in Britain from mixing with others.
Claims that Johnson and his staff enjoyed illegal office parties while millions in the country stuck to strict COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 and 2021 have dogged Johnson’s Conservative government since they first surfaced late last year. Critics, including some within Johnson’s own ranks, have called for him to resign.
Police investigated and said last week they had issued a total of 126 fines to 83 people. Most are thought to be junior staffers, but one 50-pound ($60) fine went to Johnson, for attending a surprise birthday party thrown for him in June 2020. That made him the first British prime minister ever found to have broken the law while in office.
Johnson apologized, but insisted that he didn't knowingly break the rules, saying “it did not occur to me” that the brief gathering was a party — a claim that drew derision from many.
Police didn't identify those who were fined, but Treasury chief Rishi Sunak, as well as Johnson’s wife, Carrie, have said they also paid fines for attending Johnson’s birthday party.
While “partygate” threatened to topple Johnson’s leadership earlier this year, he has clung on to power, partly because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine diverted public and political attention.
He got a reprieve when the Metropolitan Police told him last week that he wouldn't be getting any further fines, even though he attended several of the events under investigation.
Treasury minister Simon Clarke defended the prime minister on Monday, saying Johnson “had a fine for a slice of cake between meetings.”
He said the context of the parties was a government under “extraordinary” pressure during the pandemic with people “working on questions of literally life and death” and operating under “exhausting strain.”
Gray’s full report could renew pressure on Johnson if it heavily criticizes him and senior officials, or contains photos and other vivid evidence of Downing Street socializing.
The government says it will publish Gray’s report in full once it is handed in.
A partial version of the Gray report was published in January after police requested her to leave out details to avoid prejudicing police inquiries. The partial report didn't name individuals, but it did criticize “failures of leadership and judgment” that allowed the parties to take place.
About 30 people, including Johnson, have been contacted by Gray’s team over the past few days to warn them of the contents of the report before its publication.
While the Gray report is closely watched, the civil servant’s scope for censuring Johnson is limited — and it’s unclear the extent to which its publication will help restore public trust in the Conservative government.
On Friday, new questions were raised after British media reported that Johnson and Gray had met several weeks ago — though what exactly the two discussed is unclear.
Defending Johnson on Sunday, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said Gray is conducting an “independent” investigation.
“The prime minister has made it very clear that he has never intervened or will seek to intervene or interfere with the investigation,” Zahawi told the BBC.
Opposition parties urged Johnson to explain why he held a “secret meeting” with Gray.
“Public confidence in the process is already depleted, and people deserve to know the truth,” said Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party.
Johnson also faces a separate inquiry by lawmakers about whether he knowingly lied to Parliament when he told lawmakers earlier that no laws had been broken at Downing Street. Ministers found to have done so are generally expected to resign.