U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in big trouble. The leader of the country’s Labour Party says he should resign; many members of Johnson’s own Conservative Party agree. What’s going on? While the scandal is, on one level, so simple a 5-year-old can explain it, many Americans are just catching up with its various absurdities. Allow us to help. The Pork Pie Putsch, the Partygate report, the ambush with a cake, the suitcase full of wine, and the importance of Prince Philip’s funeral—all of this, explained.
Boris Johnson should resign for what now?
For a series of social gatherings that took place at 10 Downing St. over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, including when the country had imposed strict lockdown measures. Like Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who went clubbing after a COVID exposure, or California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who irked constituents by attending a lobbyist’s birthday dinner at the famous fine dining destination the French Laundry, Johnson has been caught breaking his own rules.
In a sign of America’s powerful cultural influence, the scandal has been dubbed Partygate. Unlike in America, however, the U.K. public seems to be actually outraged over the appearance of hypocrisy.
Hypocrisy in politics? Blimey.
It seems quaint, but it’s still a thing over there.
The most damning report so far is of an incident on Friday, April 16, 2021, when the country was in national mourning over the death of Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth’s husband, and coronavirus restrictions forbade mixing households indoors. The following day, photographs of the queen sitting masked and alone at her husband’s funeral became the defining image of the nation’s suffering and sacrifice over the course of the pandemic.
But on that Friday night, a couple dozen staffers at Downing Street made such a ruckus that they allegedly broke a swing used by the PM’s children, and refueled with a suitcase full of wine from a local grocery store. (In addition to holding a lot of wine, a suitcase also hints to staffers’ own knowledge that they were doing something illicit.) There was music and dancing.
Why are we just learning about this now?
One thing that makes Partygate so complicated is that you have to keep two timelines in mind. One is the timeline of the infractions, which began during the first COVID lockdown in the spring of 2020 and continued through the second COVID lockdown in the spring of 2021. The second is the timeline of scoops, excuses, and apologies, which began at the beginning of last month and have continued pretty much uninterrupted since. The tale of the Funeral Eve Dance Party was broken by the Daily Telegraph on Jan. 13, but the Partygate scandal kicked off way back at the end of November.
What was the first story?
On Nov. 30, 2021, Pippa Crerar at the Daily Mirror published a story alleging that a series of parties had taken place at 10 Downing St. the previous fall as the country shifted into its second lockdown. A week later, ITV published a video that shows Johnson staffers joking about their wine and cheese Christmas party. Senior government spokesperson Allegra Stratton, the star of the video, resigned in tears.
Addressing Parliament on Dec. 8, Boris Johnson said he was very upset: “I was also furious to see that clip. … I have been repeatedly assured, since these allegations emerged, that there was no party and that no COVID rules were broken.” He asked for Simon Case, a civil servant, to conduct an investigation.
As it turned out, that video was the first in a drip, drip, drip of reports of additional shindigs at government offices—eight in the fall of 2020, including a photo of Johnson himself taking part in a “Christmas Quiz,” flanked by a man in a tinsel scarf and a woman in a Santa hat who Downing Street sources told the BBC were there to “help him with the technology.” The prime minister’s line changed: “I certainly broke no rules.”
Doesn’t seem worth bringing down the government over a Christmas quiz.
Technically, the quiz took place at a time when it was forbidden for Londoners from different households to hang out indoors. Official guidance explicitly said work was permitted, but no Christmas lunch or party. But it’s true that a Christmas quiz alone could not have done in BoJo.
But revelations about socializing at Downing Street continued with reports of a garden party last spring at which Johnson was photographed sitting with his partner (now wife), drinking wine and eating cheese—in apparent violation of COVID rules. Johnson’s office said it was a work event. Then news broke of an email invitation for a BYOB “socially distanced drinks” a week later, which was sent to 100 people. Johnson attended for “25 minutes,” he said in an apology to Parliament. “In hindsight,” he added, “I should have sent everyone back inside, and I should have found some other way to thank them.”
Then came the news of the aforementioned party on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral, after which Boris Johnson apologized to the queen on Jan. 14. At this point, opposition leader Keir Starmer called for his resignation—as did some members of his own party.
Andrew Bridgen, a conservative MP and former Johnson ally, said it’s not important if he was at any workplace shindigs or not. “It doesn’t matter whether the prime minster was present or not present—ultimately, he is responsible for what goes on in the government, he’s responsible for the culture in No. 10 and what we’re seeing is a culture where there’s one rule for them and the rest of us do what we’re told.”
How are Britons keeping up with it all?
Partly through a political ritual called PMQs—a raucous parliamentary press conference in which the executive must answer questions from lawmakers. This week’s edition was rowdy even by the standards of the forum: Johnson made jokes about the weight of two separate MPs, the speaker (a neutral, presiding arbiter) threatened to eject lawmakers for shouting, and one Labour representative called the prime minister “a liar”—a breach of decorum he was forced to retract.
PMQs have become such a hot ticket that websites are running Super Bowl–style SEO lures. (What time is PMQs? Click to find out.) It’s at PMQs that Starmer and Johnson have sort of hammered out an agreement on what ought to meet the standard for the latter’s resignation: misleading Parliament. Starmer says Johnson has done so; Johnson says he hasn’t, and has urged his colleagues to wait for the results of the investigation.
Surely Simon Case will get to the bottom of this one?
Boris wasn’t the only one visited by ghosts of Christmas past. On Dec. 17, Simon took himself off the case, after it was revealed he had thrown a holiday party of his own—exactly one year prior, the night before Downing Street’s alleged bash.
The new investigator is Sue Gray, and it’s her report—said to be due next week—that the country eagerly awaits.
How did Sue Gray spend Christmas 2020?
Presumably someone in London didn’t have an office party. MPs in Johnson’s corner say Starmer, by the way, should be investigated by the police for drinking a beer with colleagues last spring.
It’s interesting that Johnson is the most in trouble for lying. As they say, it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.
Well, in this case, it’s also the crime. This week, Scotland Yard announced it is investigating whether Johnson and his staffers breached the lockdown law. Sue Gray says she has turned over some material to the police, though it’s not clear how their involvement will affect her report.
Does Johnson still have public support?
Not much. A string of polls show that people are fed up with him. For a guy who has effectively posed as a genial class clown to wriggle out of, or at least past, all manner of more substantive scandals all his life—such as the time he was fired from a shadow Cabinet post for lying about having an affair—it’s a little shocking to think he might lose a job so big over something so trivial.
And his fellow Conservatives?
Some are still behind him. Johnson’s making the argument that he’s gotten the big stuff right on COVID, principally the economy—and that with Russia and Ukraine on the brink of war, it would be a bad time to topple the head of government.*
Another thing that happened this week was that ITV News reported that Carrie Johnson, the prime minister’s wife, threw him a surprise birthday party in June 2020—sharing cake and a round of song at a time when indoor socializing was still forbidden. One loyal Conservative MP came to his defense, arguing that he was “ambushed with a cake.” (If you recall, he had only recently emerged from a very serious brush with COVID-19 that had him hospitalized.) Together with the suitcase full of wine, “ambushed with a cake” has become one of the emblematic images of the scandal.
Another unfortunate parallel: A week before the ambush was the celebration of the queen’s birthday, which she spent watching a parade, alone.
So who has turned on Johnson?
Several dozen members of his own party have written “no confidence” letters; if their number within his own party reaches 54, Johnson faces a recall vote. Johnson’s former right-hand man, Dominic Cummings, has been one of the most vociferous critics, writing that he warned his colleagues not to hold parties. (Earlier, Cummings enraged the nation with his own breach of lockdown etiquette, traveling 300 miles to visit his parents and then making a 60-mile round-trip journey to a nearby castle to “test his eyesight.”)
Various outlets have reported that another group of vulnerable MPs, representing the “red wall” districts that have traditionally voted for Labour but turned right after Brexit, are planning to move against Johnson when the Partygate report is published. That uprising is being called the “pork pie putsch,” after a famous iteration of the savory snack from the country’s Midlands region, where many of the MPs are from.
But that’s nothing Operation Save Big Dog can’t fix.
Who’s Big Dog?
Boris Johnson, who else? According to the Independent, that’s Downing Street’s plan to shift the blame to subordinates when the Partygate report drops. Otherwise … anyone seen that suitcase?
Correction, Jan. 28, 2022: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly implied that Johnson is the head of state. He is the head of government.