Boris Johnson reboots office in bid to move past ‘partygate’

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson looks on, during a visit to the Kent Oncology Centre at Maidstone Hospital in Maidstone, Kent, England, Monday, Feb. 7, 2022. (Gareth Fuller/Pool Photo via AP)

LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has brought in new senior staffers as he tries to restore his flagging authority — including a communications chief who has called lockdown-breaching government parties “unforgivable.” 

The prime minister hired Guto Harri, an aide from his days as London mayor who has recently been critical of Johnson, to try to regain control of the government’s messaging after weeks of turmoil that have led some in the ruling Conservatives to call for his removal. He also appointed a senior Cabinet minister, Steve Barclay, as his new chief of staff. 

Visiting a hospital cancer center Monday outside London, Johnson said he was “focused completely” on clearing a backlog of millions of medical procedures built up during the pandemic. It’s one of a pile of critical issues, including a squeeze on household finances from inflation and a looming tax hike, that are being overshadowed by Johnson’s personal woes. 

“I think what people want is for the government to focus, not on stuff going on at (the government district of) Westminster, but to focus on life … beyond Westminster, and to focus on the needs of the country,” Johnson said. “And that is what we’re doing.” 

Johnson’s grip on power has been shaken by public anger over revelations that his staff held “bring your own booze” office parties, birthday celebrations and “wine time Fridays” in 2020 and 2021 while millions in Britain were barred from meeting with friends and family because of his government’s COVID-19 restrictions. 

A total of 16 parties have been investigated by a senior civil servant, Sue Gray, with a dozen of them also under investigation by the Metropolitan Police. 

In an interim report last week into the four parties not under criminal investigation, Gray found that “failures of leadership and judgment” enabled events to occur that “should not have been allowed to take place” and described a Downing Street operation marked by excessive drinking and dysfunctional dynamics. 

Johnson apologized — without admitting personal wrongdoing — and pledged to fix the problems in his office.  

But on Friday he was rocked by the departure of five senior staff, including his chief of staff, his communications director and his policy director, Munira Mirza. Mirza, a loyal longtime aide, stood by the prime minister amid the “partygate” revelations. But she said Johnson’s “scurrilous accusation” this week that an opposition leader had failed to stop a notorious pedophile was the final straw. 

Johnson responded to the departures with a Downing Street shakeup that included the eye-catching appointment of Harri, a former BBC journalist who worked for Johnson at City Hall from 2008 to 2012 but has more recently criticized him. In 2018, Harri called Johnson “sexually incontinent,” and in 2020 he said government communications during the pandemic had been “a masterclass in incompetence.” Last month Harri said reports of parties in Downing Street while Britain was in lockdown were “unforgivable,” though also “understandable in some ways.” 

Harri told a Welsh-language news site that Johnson greeted him on his first day by singing Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” 

The staff moves are intended to reassure Conservative lawmakers who are debating whether to seek a no-confidence vote in the leader who won them a big parliamentary majority just over two years ago.  

Under party rules, a no-confidence vote is triggered if 15% of party lawmakers — currently 54 people — write letters calling for one. If Johnson lost such a vote, he would be replaced as party leader and prime minister. 

Only 15 of the 360 Conservative legislators have publicly called for Johnson to quit, though the number who have written letters is likely higher.  

Conservative lawmaker Tom Tugendhat, who has already said he will run for leader if Johnson is ousted, said the prime minister’s fate depended on “how the reset goes.” 

He said “there’s an awful lot of talent going in,” but also “an awful lot of talent coming out.”