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Boris Johnson's attendance at a garden party prompts calls for his resignation

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing what may be the greatest political threat yet to his job. It has nothing to do with Brexit, nothing to do with his own personal brush with COVID-19. Instead, the scandal that has roiled Westminster centers on a party he attended in his own backyard, as Willem Marx reports from London.

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: Several minutes after noon on Wednesday, Boris Johnson sought to share a message both with members of the British Parliament and the British public.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: Mr. Speaker, I want to apologize.

MARX: His appearance at the legislature's rowdy weekly inquisition known as Prime Minister's Questions came two days after a British broadcaster published a leaked message from Johnson's private secretary. In that email from May 2020, staff were invited to drink and socialize in the garden at the official residence Downing Street at a time of severe COVID-related restrictions when ordinary citizens could not attend funerals and only meet outdoors with one other person to exercise or risk arrest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: I know that millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months. I know the anguish that they have been through, unable to mourn their relatives, unable to live their lives as they want or to do the things they love. And I know the rage they feel with me and with the government I lead when they think that in Downing Street itself, the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules.

MARX: That public anger he acknowledged has crescendoed after multiple reports of social gatherings inside government buildings during national lockdowns. Initially, Johnson denied any parties ever happened, then insisted he knew nothing about them. Today his defense changed again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: And when I went into that garden just after 6:00 on the 20 of May...

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD MURMURING)

JOHNSON: ...2020 to thank groups of staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later to continue working, I believed implicitly that this was a work event.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD MURMURING)

JOHNSON: But Mr. Speaker, with hindsight, I should have sent everyone back inside.

MARX: He acknowledged that millions of citizens would not have seen it that way, and neither did the Labour Party's leader Keir Starmer, his chief political opponent who finally pounced, publicly demanding Johnson's resignation for the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEIR STARMER: After months of deceit and deception...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Yeah.

STARMER: ...The pathetic spectacle of a man who has run out of road...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Yeah.

STARMER: ...His defense that he didn't realize he was at a party...

(LAUGHTER)

STARMER: ...Is so ridiculous that it's actually offensive to the British public.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Yeah.

STARMER: He's finally being forced to admit what everyone knew, that when the whole country was locked down, he was hosting boozy parties in Downing Street.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Yeah.

STARMER: Is he now going to do the decent thing and resign?

(CHEERING)

MARX: In response, Johnson did not rule out resignation but instead requested patience while one of Britain's top civil servants leads an investigation into more than a dozen such social gatherings inside government during several different lockdowns. Johnson said he did not want to preempt those findings. And if he refuses to resign, only his fellow conservative legislators can decide to force him out. Inside the parliamentary chamber today, most of them stayed silent, heads bowed as an army of their opponents urged them to take action. But in the hours since, some have started speaking up - the first drip drip of demands for Johnson's departure. Though this started with a leak, it may eventually become a flood.

For NPR News, I'm Willem Marx in London.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.