LONDON — Boris Johnson tried to turn the page on a row over coronavirus lockdown-breaching government parties by reminding his MPs that he’s playing a major role in responding to the Ukraine war.
The British prime minister — who was fined by police last week over a 2020 gathering held when it was illegal to meet indoors under COVID rules — on Tuesday apologized to parliament “in all humility.”
The gathering was held for Johnson’s birthday not long after the outbreak of the pandemic. Johnson has claimed he attended only briefly and that it did not occur to him he was breaking the rules.
The prime minister told MPs as they met for the first time since he received the penalty that he “acknowledged the hurt and anger” felt by the public and that “people had a right to expect better of their prime minister.”
But Johnson immediately pivoted to the war engulfing Ukraine, saying that because of the anger towards him he felt “an even greater sense of obligation to deliver on the priorities of the British people and to respond in the best traditions of our country to Putin’s barbaric onslaught against Ukraine.”
He drew attention to a virtual meeting with world leaders he’d attended Tuesday afternoon, and talked up his recent trip to Kyiv to see Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has heaped praise on the British response to Russia’s invasion.
Labour leader Keir Starmer wasn’t buying it. He accused the prime minister of “distortions and deflections,” saying of Johnson’s conduct: “This isn’t some fixable glitch in the system. It’s the whole point. It’s what he does.”
Safiah Ngah, spokesperson for the campaign group COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said Johnson’s apology marked “the words of someone who is sorry they’ve been caught, not someone who regrets the harm they’ve done.”
Of more concern to Johnson will be the reaction of Conservative MPs in the coming days. His parliamentary colleagues hold Johnson’s fate in their hands, but have so far shied away from triggering an internal party vote on his leadership.
Tory MP and former Cabinet minister Mark Harper called on Johnson to resign, saying he’s “no longer worthy of the great office he holds.” Yet few others broke ranks to criticize their leader.
Johnson faces another test of strength on Thursday when MPs will vote on whether to refer him to a Commons committee that handles contempt of parliament cases, amid claims he misled MPs when he previously said all COVID rules had been followed.
The prime minister stressed that he had not done so deliberately, and the success of his defense will depend on how persuasive MPs find this argument. Misleading parliament has traditionally been a resigning matter.
Johnson confirmed he has now paid the police fine, and reminded MPs that the police investigation has not yet concluded.
Critics from Johnson’s own party predicted the vote this week would go his way. But they said he could yet face a threat to his position if the Conservatives do badly in next month’s local elections or if he is fined again for an event regarded as more egregious.
One senior Tory MP said “very large numbers” of his colleagues thought they had “been badly let down” but are “waiting til after the elections.”