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Boris Johnson apologizes again as investigation into his lockdown parties continues

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

London police are investigating whether a dozen social gatherings by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government broke pandemic rules. And today, once again, Johnson had to apologize to lawmakers in the U.K.'s House of Commons.

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PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: I want to say sorry, and I'm sorry for the things we simply didn't get right and also sorry for the way that this matter has been handled.

KEITH: But Johnson again refused calls to resign. For more on the political crisis in the U.K., we turn now to our man in London, Frank Langfitt. Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Tamara.

KEITH: So Prime Minister Johnson has been under pressure to step down in recent weeks. What is new today?

LANGFITT: You're exactly right. You know, for a number of weeks now, there have been allegations that Johnson's staff held parties that included everything from people bringing in wine in a suitcase, to dancing, a DJ. And this was while the vast majority of the country was following the government's own rules not to socialize, and this meant people even not seeing their dying relatives.

So today there's a government report that's come out - very few details so far, but the report cited a failure of leadership regarding these events and said police are investigating a dozen of them. Now, Johnson's response in the House of Commons today was basically to create a new layer of management at No. 10 Downing Street as though this was primarily an office problem. This is how he put it, Tam.

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JOHNSON: Mr. Speaker, I get it, and I will fix it.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Booing).

JOHNSON: And I want to say I know what the issue is.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Unintelligible).

JOHNSON: Yes, Mr. Speaker, yes. Yes. It's whether this government can be trusted to deliver. And I say, Mr. Speaker, yes, we can be trusted. Yes, we can be trusted to deliver.

KEITH: OK, so I know that there is often a lot of shouting in the House of Commons, but how did this go over? It doesn't sound like it was well-received.

LANGFITT: No. No, it went badly. And it's as angry as I've seen lawmakers here over the years. A few members of Johnson's Conservative Party stood up to defend him, and many of his critics see his approach to this as sort of classic Johnson, which, from their perspective, is to blame others. So this is how Keir Starmer - he's the head of the opposition Labour Party. This is how he put it.

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KEIR STARMER: By routinely breaking the rules he set, the prime minister took us all for fools. He held people's sacrifice in contempt, and now he's finally fallen back on his usual excuse. It's everybody's fault but his...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yes.

STARMER: ...Because he is a man without shame.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yeah.

STARMER: And just as he has done throughout his life, he's damaged everyone and everything around him along the way.

KEITH: So here in the states, we have had more than a few hypocrisy scandals with politicians not following COVID rules, but this seems to be on a whole different level of outrage in the country.

LANGFITT: It is, and I think it certainly threatens his premiership. And I think it has to do with the fact that people really did follow the rules. It's not like the states, where you had a lot of people violating rules and you had a mask war. It wasn't like that here in the United Kingdom. The vast majority of people followed the rules. The fact that Johnson's government doesn't seem to have done so even though they were making the rules really, really upsets people, and it also fits in with the public image of Johnson as someone who's always been pretty cavalier and not played by the rules himself.

KEITH: So does this mean he's finished?

LANGFITT: No, I don't think so. He clearly intends to fight. One thing he's got going for him, Tam, is this report has very few details. The London Metropolitan Police, they said they didn't want many details published at all because they thought it could prejudice their investigation into these cases. Political and legal analysts here say that argument doesn't make any sense to them. It's not like this is going to a jury trial or anything. And they've actually suggested the Metropolitan Police may be helping the prime minister buy a little time.

KEITH: So other than time, what is his survival strategy going forward?

LANGFITT: Well, in listening to him in the House of Commons, he talked about focusing on doing the people's work. He talked about the rapid vaccine rollout here. And he also mentioned the U.K. needing to work with NATO allies to deter a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine. So it's pretty clear to some degree that he hopes that the issues that he thinks are much more important than a bunch of parties, that people will start focusing on them. And he does intend to speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin and also go to Eastern Europe this week.

KEITH: Frank Langfitt, thank you so much for joining us.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Tam.

KEITH: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in London.

(SOUNDBITE OF VAMPIRE WEEKEND SONG, "SUNFLOWER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.