'Wine time Fridays' heap pressure on British PM -

2022-04-10
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'Wine time Fridays' heap pressure on British PM - World The front pages of British newspapers on Saturday highlight Prime Minister Boris Johnson's predicament.ALBERTO PEZZALI/AP

LONDON-UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson witnessed weekly drinking sessions by his staff throughout the pandemic, according to a report on Saturday that stoked fresh calls from his own party for the embattled leader to quit.

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 accounts of rule-breaking in Downing Street.

Johnson was spending the weekend in self-isolation after a family member tested positive for COVID-19. The opposition Labour Party said he was "literally in hiding" and should resign.

Former Conservative minister Tobias Ellwood, an influential backbench MP, told the BBC that Johnson must "lead or step aside".

Whether Johnson and his staff knowingly broke the law during COVID-19 lockdowns is the central question being addressed in an inquiry by senior civil servant Sue Gray.

After weeks of denials and stonewalling, Johnson last week apologized in parliament for at least one boozy event organized by his staff which he attended in May 2020, when Britons were banned from socializing.

Two other parties were held in April last year 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 wine cooler being delivered to a Downing Street back door in December 2020.

Staff would stock the fridge with suitcase-loads of alcohol, and Johnson would often drop by to their "Wine time Fridays", it said.

"The idea that he didn't know there were drinks is total nonsense," the newspaper quoted one staffer as saying.

In response, a Downing Street spokesperson said the government was awaiting Gray's inquiry "to establish the facts around the nature of gatherings" during the pandemic.

But at least five Conservative MPs say publicly200 local medical staff have received training from dispatched medical staff that they have already filed letters demanding a vote of no confidence in the prime minister.

Fifty-four letters from Tory lawmakers are needed to trigger a vote. The Daily Telegraph newspaper said about 20 have been handed in so far.

'Lost moral authority'

After the Mirror report, Conservative backbencher Andrew Bridgen said Johnson had "lost the moral authority to lead".

He had presided over a staff culture of "one rule for them, and the rest of us do as we're told", Bridgen told BBC television.

Most cabinetJumeirah members have rallied around Johnson but the support of some, including the Finance Minister Rishi Sunak, has been distinctly lukewarm. Pensions minister Guy Opperman broke ranks to argue that Johnson "needs to change his ways", describing the personal toll inflicted on his family by the COVID-19 rules. The Oppermans' newborn twins died in June 2020.

The drip-feed threatens to overshadow a reported Downing Street plan to salvage Johnson's leadership after the Gray report is released.

The government has already signaled it intends to relax current COVID-19 restrictions in late January and Johnson allies have been touting his achievements in office, including his delivery of Britain's Brexit withdrawal from the European Union.

But the Labour Party-which this week surged to a 10-point lead over the Tories in two opinion polls ahead of local elections in May-said Johnson was "not fit for office".

"We are witnessing the broken spectacle of a prime minister mired in deceit and deception, unable to lead," Labour leader Keir Starmer said in a speech on Saturday.

Earlier on Thursday, Johnson canceled a trip to northern England after a relative came down with COVID-19, officials said.

Agencies via Xinhua

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