The UK Partygate Scandal Explained

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson got into hot water in late 2021 for, essentially, partying during the COVID-19 pandemic a year earlier when the rest of the country was put under lockdown, according to Slate. The scandal now threatens his leadership during a particularly tense time, as NATO (which the U.K. is a founding member of, via the Office of the Historian) prepares for a potential standoff with Russia.

More and more damning information about the extent to which Johnson broke the country's strict lockdown laws that winter (per The New York Times) seemingly drips out to the U.K.'s tabloids each day. A bureaucratic probe into the scandal, published on January 31, 2022, found that Johnson's administration displayed "failures of leadership and judgment" and noted that "excessive consumption of alcohol is not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time," according to Politico.

But what exactly happened at these gatherings, and why is Johnson facing such huge repercussions?

It's alleged that Johnson and his subordinates partied throughout the pandemic

Partygate isn't about one party — Boris Johnson and his staff are in trouble for a series of social gatherings during a time when the government in London was under a high level of restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic's deadly second wave, before the widespread rollout of vaccines. The scandal began in November 2021 when the Daily Mirror tabloid reported that Johnson's office had held a series of parties during the previous year's lockdown, according to Slate. A week later, video emerged of some of Johnson's staffers joking about their Christmas party that year.

Johnson told Parliament that he was unaware of any party that had taken place during that time, but reports of eight different parties soon came out, including a virtual "Christmas quiz." Johnson was photographed at that last event in person, next to staffers wearing tinsel and Christmas hats, per BBC. This was during a time when London residents from different households were not allowed to interact indoors. Johnson was also pictured at a garden party in early spring 2021 (via The Guardian) and an indoor June 2020 surprise birthday party. A member of parliament came to his defense by saying Johnson was "ambushed with a cake," per The Washington Post.

Johnson's staff allegedly partied the night before Prince Phillip's funeral

Perhaps the most shocking scandal to the Brits, however, were the reports that Johnson's staff had a raging goodbye party for a couple of staff members on April 16, 2021, the night before Queen Elizabeth was photographed alone at her husband Prince Phillip's funeral (per Slate). Staffers even stuffed a suitcase full of wine at a local Tesco store before carting it back to 10 Downing Street for the 30-person gathering, at which Johnson was reportedly not in attendance, according to the Daily Mail. The party was apparently raucous enough that revelers broke a swing used by Johnson's son.

Sources told local journalists that these parties were held weekly and that Johnson made appearances a handful of times at the events. "It was a culture of 3 a.m. sessions," one staffer told The Times. "People used to sleep off their hangovers in the buildings overnight on sofas and in the mornings there were empty drinks on the desks that the cleaners had to pick up. There was a culture of boozing."

The scandal is still being investigated by Metropolitan Police

The primary investigation into the scandal by senior civil servant Sue Gray concluded at the end of January 2022, but the Metropolitan Police are continuing to look into whether 12 parties held at Downing Street and other government offices broke the law, according to the BBC. Their investigation includes parties that Boris Johnson himself attended, and even the" virtual Christmas quiz" may now become a target of the investigation after an image showing Johnson near an open bottle of champagne at the event was published by the Daily Mirror in early February 2022.

"The [Met] previously assessed this [trivia] event and determined that on the basis of the evidence available at that time, it did not meet the threshold for criminal investigation," the police said in a statement. "That assessment is now being reviewed."

Ironically, the police investigation might have helped Johnson weather the scandal, at least initially — their involvement meant that Gray's report on the parties had to withhold details pertaining to the subject of their inquiries, according to The New York Times.

Johnson has gotten calls to resign from all across the political spectrum

Still, Boris Johnson faces calls to resign and could face a vote of confidence if just 54 MPs within his own party (of the 360 Torys currently elected) submit no-confidence letters to the 1922 Committee, the parliamentary group within the Conservative Party that oversees challenges to party leadership, via CNBC. If the confidence vote is triggered and over half of Johnson's party votes to replace him, he will be forced to step down from his position as prime minister. Another Tory leader would then be elected by the party to take his place.

An unknown number of Conservatives have submitted confidence letters, and some party members have publicly called for Johnson to resign. On February 10, former Prime Minister John Major, who was head of the party throughout most of the '90s, called what Johnson did outright illegal (via BBC). Opposition leaders, too, have had harsh words for Johnson. Labour leader Keir Starmer called for Johnson to resign, saying that he was responsible for "immense damage to public trust," according to The Guardian.

The public may have turned on Johnson too

The scandal hasn't just been gossip for news junkies — it's affected Boris Johnson's poll standings in a way that no other scandal has. A YouGov poll from January 2022 found that 62 percent of U.K. residents think that Boris Johnson should resign over Partygate, according to i News, and 74 percent of the poll's respondents said that the Met was right to investigate the U.K. leader over the scandal. And after a tough year for the Labour Party, polling now shows that the major opposition party would handily beat the Tories if an election were held today, with Redfield & Wilton Strategies' latest poll finding that Labour leads Conservative by 7 points. Evidentially, the hypocrisy of the government calling for lockdown while secretly partying is just too much for the British public.

Whether or not Johnson is forced out now, local elections are coming this May, and if Conservatives suffer major losses, Johnson's exit may be inevitable. "[My] view is that the vote of confidence is coming," Philip Cowley, a London-based professor of politics, told The New York Times. "We know that voters are volatile and can change their minds, but it would be unprecedented for someone to come back from ratings this low to then be successful electorally."