Senior civil servant Sue Gray concluded that “there were failures of leadership and judgment” in the government and “some of the events should not have been allowed to take place”.
“Against the backdrop of the pandemic, when the government was asking citizens to accept far-reaching restrictions on their lives, some of the behaviour surrounding these gatherings is difficult to justify,” Ms Gray said in a first version of her findings released on Monday (Tuesday morning AEDT).
The strongly worded findings are a blow to Mr Johnson — who has previously said the rules were followed at all times — and come despite the fact that Ms Gray’s conclusions relate to just four of the 16 events she investigated.
Her findings on 12 other events in 2020 and 2021 have been withheld at the request of the police, who have launched a criminal investigation into the most serious alleged breaches of coronavirus rules. The cuts have led opponents to accuse Mr Johnson of a whitewash.
Among the events under investigation by police are a June 2020 birthday party for Mr Johnson and two gatherings held on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral in April 2021.
Allegations that the prime minister and his staff flouted restrictions imposed on the country to curb the spread of the coronavirus have caused public anger, led some Conservative lawmakers to call for Mr Johnson’s resignation and triggered intense infighting inside the governing party.
Mr Johnson has denied personal wrongdoing and said he has “absolutely no intention” of resigning.
But Mr Johnson’s grip on power has been weakened by allegations that he and his staff flouted restrictions they imposed on the country in 2020 and 2021 to curb the spread of the coronavirus with “bring your own booze” office parties, birthday celebrations and “wine time Fridays.”
Publication of Ms Gray’s report was delayed when the Metropolitan Police force launched its own investigation last week into the most serious alleged breaches of coronavirus rules.
The force said it had asked for Ms Gray’s report to make only “minimal reference” to the events being investigated by detectives “to avoid any prejudice to our investigation.”
Mr Johnson’s opponents accused the government of trying to water down a report that could trigger an attempt to oust the prime minister by his own party. Some Conservative lawmakers have said they will push for a no-confidence vote if Ms Gray finds Mr Johnson was at fault or lied to Parliament about his actions.
The circumscribed and partial report may give Johnson at least a temporary reprieve from calls for his ouster.
“It’s a mess,” said Will Walden, a former Johnson aide.
“It’s probably bad for democracy, but inadvertently good for the PM.”
It’s unclear whether Ms Gray’s full findings will be published once the police investigation is finished. Mr Johnson’s spokesman, Max Blain, said the prime minister’s office would discuss with police and Ms Gray’s team “what is suitable” to publish.
Mr Johnson could be interviewed by detectives as part of their probe and may face a fine if he is found to have breached the law.
Mr Johnson, meanwhile, was trying to change the subject from his personal woes, marking the second anniversary of Brexit on Monday by touting economic opportunities outside the European Union.
The UK officially left the now 27-nation bloc on January 31, 2020, though it remained part of the EU’s economic structures for another 11 months.
Since then, the upheaval of the coronavirus pandemic has obscured the economic ructions caused by the end of frictionless trade with Britain’s biggest economic partner. Britain’s economy is growing after entering recession amid pandemic lockdowns, but trade with the EU has fallen since Brexit introduced customs checks and other hurdles.
Mr Johnson vowed Monday to unlock the potential of Brexit, unveiling a “Brexit Freedoms” Bill that the government says will slash red tape for British businesses by amending laws that were carried over from the UK’s years as an EU member.
Opponents say the bill will just make it easier for the government to change laws without Parliament’s approval.
The government is also promising this week to give long-awaited details of plans to “level up” the country by expanding economic opportunity to neglected regions.
And Mr Johnson plans a diplomatic push to try to ease tensions between Russia and Ukraine. His office says the prime minister will speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone later Monday and visit Ukraine on Tuesday as part of efforts to deter Russia from invading its neighbour.