UK’s Boris Johnson ends a week of unrest in a weakened position
LONDON (AP) — This was the week British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hoped to get his government under control after weeks of scandal. He was struggling to hang on on Friday after a scathing report of parties breaking the lockdown and the departure of several senior aides.
Johnson was rocked Thursday by the resignation of his political boss, Munira Mirza, a trusted adviser who worked with him for more than a decade. Mirza stood by the prime minister amid ‘partygate’ revelations that Johnson and his team broke the rules they imposed on the country. But she said Johnson’s “slanderous accusation” this week that an opposition leader had failed to arrest a notorious pedophile was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“It was not the normal nudge of politics; it was an inappropriate and partisan reference to a horrific case of child sexual abuse,” Mirza wrote in a resignation letter, published by The Spectator magazine.
Following Mirza’s departure, Johnson’s office announced the departure of three other high-level staffers: Chief of Staff Dan Rosenfield, Director of Communications Jack Doyle and Principal Private Secretary Martin Reynolds. Elena Narozanski, who worked in Murza’s political unit, resigned on Friday.
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Tory lawmakers loyal to Johnson outlined the departures as part of a planned overhaul to restore order to his office at 10 Downing Street.
“The Prime Minister was absolutely clear on Monday that there would be changes at the top of No 10 and that’s what he delivered,” Energy Minister Greg Hands said. “It is the Prime Minister who takes matters into his own hands.”
Others weren’t so sure. The prime minister’s grip on power has been shaken by public anger over revelations that his staff have been hosting ‘bring your own booze’ office parties, birthday celebrations and ‘hourly Fridays’ wine” at times in 2020 and 2021, while millions of people in Britain were barred from meeting friends and family due to COVID-19 restrictions.
A total of 16 parties have been investigated by senior official Sue Gray, and a dozen of these are also being investigated by the Metropolitan Police.
On Monday, Gray released an interim report examining the four parties that police are not investigating. She found that ‘flaws in leadership and judgement’ allowed events to happen ‘that shouldn’t have happened’ and described a Downing Street operation marked by excessive drinking and dysfunctional dynamics .
Johnson apologized and pledged to address issues in his office, although he did not admit to personal wrongdoing.
Rosenfield, Doyle and especially Reynolds – who sent 100 government workers an invitation to a BYOB garden party in May 2020 – were still likely to be ousted as part of Johnson’s post-“partygate” reshuffle.
But Mirza’s departure was a blow. In her resignation letter, she said Johnson had ignored her advice to apologize for accusing Labor leader Keir Starmer in the House of Commons on Monday of ‘failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile when Starmer was the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions. Savile was a longtime youth TV presenter who was exposed after his death in 2011 as a sexual predator who abused hundreds of children.
Starmer said the accusation was “a ridiculous insult peddled by right-wing trolls”. A 2013 report revealed that Starmer had not been involved in decisions about whether Savile should be prosecuted.
Some conservatives also balked at using Savile in a political attack. In his resignation letter, Mirza said Johnson let himself down “by making a scurrilous accusation against the Leader of the Opposition.”
The Downing Street exodus is sending fresh shockwaves to Tory lawmakers as they consider whether to seek a vote of no confidence in the leader who won them a large parliamentary majority just over two years ago . Under party rules, such a vote is triggered if 15% of party lawmakers — currently 54 people — write letters asking for one. If Johnson lost such a vote, he would be replaced as party leader and prime minister.
Only a dozen conservative lawmakers have publicly called on Johnson to step down, though the number who wrote letters may be higher.
Aaron Bell, a lawmaker who asked parliament on Monday whether Johnson thought he was a fool for following social distancing rules at his grandmother’s 2020 funeral, added his name on Friday to those calling for a vote of no confidence. He wrote on social media that “the breach of trust represented by the events at 10 Downing Street, and the manner in which they were handled, makes his position untenable”.
Many more are biding their time, waiting to see if the police censure the Prime Minister and what Gray will say in his final report, expected once the criminal investigation is complete.
Huw Merriman, a moderate Conservative lawmaker, said the prime minister had to prepare or walk away.
“My constituents are upset,” he told the BBC. “I feel like we’ve lost face and public trust with them. We have to get that back.