LONDON: Britain’s main opposition leader yesterday accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of breaking the law, but the government vowed changes after a bruising series of revelations about lockdown-breaching parties. In the latest, Johnson’s wife Carrie was photographed on the front page of the Sunday Telegraph newspaper embracing a friend at a September 2020 party, in apparent violation of the then rules on social distancing.

At least six lawmakers in Johnson’s Conservative party have now called publicly for him to quit, while others say they are awaiting the findings of an internal inquiry by senior civil servant Sue Gray. Labour leader Keir Starmer, who is enjoying an opinion poll surge on the back of the Downing Street “partygate” allegations, said the facts were already clear.

“I think he broke the law. I think he’s as good as admitted that he broke the law,” Starmer told BBC television. Gray only has the remit to establish the facts, he added, calling for the police to look into a possible criminal inquiry once her report is out. “The prime minister has degraded the office of prime minister and he has lost full authority not only in his own party, but in the country,” Starmer said. Government minister Oliver Dowden, the Conservatives’ co-chairman, conceded that the Downing Street parties were “completely unacceptable”.

But Dowden backed Johnson to stay in office, while stressing he would take “full responsibility” once Gray releases her findings. “I can tell you that when he responds to the House of Commons, as he has committed to do so, he will make sure that we address the kind of culture that has allowed that to happen in the first place,” he told Sky News. Conservative MPs, many of whom were spending the weekend back in their home constituencies, say they are being deluged with messages from voters outraged at the accounts of rule-breaking in Downing Street. After weeks of denials and stonewalling, Johnson this week apologised in parliament for at least one boozy event organised by his staff which he attended in May 2020, when Britons were banned from socialising.

Two other parties were held in April 2021 as Queen Elizabeth II prepared to bury Prince Philip, her husband of 73 years. Downing Street sent apologies to Buckingham Palace, calling them “deeply regrettable”. But those were not isolated events, according to Saturday’s Daily Mirror, which published a photograph of a fridge being delivered to a Downing Street back door in December 2020 for “Wine time Fridays”.

Meanwhile, Britain’s government said yesterday it hopes to lift its latest COVID restrictions for England later this month with the Omicron surge of infections apparently fading. Last month, England switched to “Plan B” restrictions, re-imposing guidance to work from home and a requirement for attendees to show vaccination passports on entry to larger events. The government will lift those on January 26, but a mandate to wear face masks may continue, according to reports. Government minister Oliver Dowden, co-chairman of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative party, said the “signs were encouraging”. “It has always been my hope that we would have the Plan B restrictions for the shortest period possible,” he said on Sky News.

“I’m under no doubt the kind of burdens this puts hospitality, wider business, schools and so on under, and I want us to get rid of those if we possibly can.” After the Omicron variant emerged, Britain’s daily caseload for COVID topped a record 200,000 infections in early January, but has now dropped to less than half that.

The upcoming relaxation will reportedly form part of plans by Johnson to relaunch his premiership as he battles a slew of allegations about “partygate” lockdown breaches in Downing Street. Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer agreed with the need to lift the restrictions “as soon as possible” if government scientists agree, but noted the backdrop of political scandal.

“I want them to be lifted because the medical science says they should be lifted, not simply because the prime minister is in a real mess and he’s desperately trying to get out of it,” he told the BBC. Many Conservative MPs are up in arms about the reports of rule-breaking in Downing Street, and had already warned Johnson he cannot count on their support to extend COVID restrictions.

Facing restive Tory backbenchers, the prime minister rebuffed calls by some scientists to impose a full lockdown in December, and allowed sporting events to continue with capacity crowds in England. The devolved governments of Scotland and Wales did impose bans on large crowds at sports fixtures last month, but have now lifted that rule in time for the Six Nations rugby tournament starting next month. – AFP