London, Apr 19: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday offered what he said was a “wholehearted” apology for attending an illegal party during lockdown – but insisted he didn’t knowingly break rules or mislead Parliament, and brushed off calls to resign.
Johnson told lawmakers in the House of Commons that it simply “did not occur to me” that the birthday gathering, complete with a cake, was a party.
Opposition politicians – and some among the governing Conservatives – have called with increasing frustration for Johnson to quit since stories began to circulate late last year of parties in the prime minister’s office and other government buildings in 2020 and 2021, when millions in the country were barred from meeting with friends and family or even attending funerals for their loved ones.
Last week, Johnson was fined 50 pounds ($66) for attending his own surprise birthday party in 10 Downing St. in June 2020, making him the first British prime minister ever found to have broken the law while in office.
Speaking as the House of Commons returned from an 11-day Easter break, Johnson acknowledged people’s “hurt and anger,” but added that “it did not occur to me then or subsequently that a gathering in the Cabinet Room, just before a vital meeting on COVID strategy, could amount to a breach of the rules.”
Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer branded the apology “a joke,” and challenged Conservatives to jettison Johnson.
“He knows he’s dishonest and incapable of changing,” Starmer said. “So he drags everybody else down with him.”
Starmer was told off by House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle for accusing another member of dishonesty – a breach of parliamentary rules. Minutes later, Labour lawmaker Karl Turner also branded Johnson a liar.
“I withdraw the word ‘liar,’ Speaker,” Turner said. “But the electorate will already have decided.”
Labour has not given up on trying to get lawmakers to censure Johnson over the “partygate” scandal. Speaker Hoyle said he would allow Labour to hold a Commons debate and vote Thursday on whether Johnson should be investigated for allegedly misleading Parliament. Ministers found to have done that knowingly are generally expected to resign.
The big Conservative majority in Parliament means the measure is unlikely to pass, but it will force Tory lawmakers uneasy with the prime minister to publicly back him or criticize him.
Johnson insisted Tuesday that he was contrite, but argued it would be wrong to change leaders while Britain faces crises including the war in Ukraine and a cost-of-living squeeze driven by surging energy and goods prices.