LONDON (AP) — Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologized to parliamentarians on Tuesday after becoming the first British leader to be fined for breaking the law, but faced calls from the opposition to resign for the sake of integrity in politics.
Addressing parliament for the first time since the April 12 fine, he reiterated that he did not think he had done anything wrong when he attended an office meeting for his birthday in June 2020, when Britain was under a pandemic lockdown.
“That was my mistake and I apologize for it unreservedly,” he said.
The British public “had a right to expect better from their prime minister,” Johnson added, while insisting he would get on with the job, including defending Ukraine against “barbaric” invasion by Russia.
The combination of problems led to accusations that Johnson was trying to bury the controversy over “partygate” fines, which have also involved his finance minister and his wife.
Johnson could still face further fines for several Downing Street parties held despite strict coronavirus lockdowns imposed by his own government over the past two years.
MPs will hold a special debate on Thursday on whether he misled the House of Commons when, in December, he denied breaking the rules. He will be on an official visit to India by then.
Knowingly misleading parliament is a breach of the code of conduct for government ministers, which states that they must resign as a result, with opposition lawmakers insisting he should leave.
But when asked directly whether he deliberately misled parliament, Johnson emphatically replied: “No.”
Opposition Labor leader Keir Starmer said there was cross-party support for Britain’s backing of Ukraine, and any Conservative successor would continue Johnson’s war policy.
Starmer recounted the experience of a member of the public who, due to Covid rules in place at the time, was denied the opportunity to hold his dying wife’s hand in hospital.
Johnson was “a man without shame” backed by “nodding dogs” in his cabinet, Starmer said, urging Conservative MPs to oust their leader.
They should “bring decency, honesty and integrity back into our politics and stop the denigration of this country,” the Labor leader said.
A national poll suggested that about two-thirds of the public spoke negatively about Johnson, compared to just 16 percent positively, with the word “liar” the most shared response.
“Overall, ‘partygate’ dominates Boris’s views on Ukraine,” said James Johnson, a conservative pollster who conducted the sample.
“Fury hasn’t backed down. A lot of negative comments are from people who used to like him before but have now changed their minds.”
Voters will have the opportunity to cast a verdict on May 5, when the UK holds national elections for local and municipal councils.
A thrashing of the Conservatives then could sharpen debate among his own lawmakers, some of whom have said now is not the time to change leaders given the war in Ukraine.
Justice Minister Simon Wolfson has since resigned from the government, citing “the scale, context and nature” of the rule’s breaches.
Johnson will try to strengthen his position with MPs when he addresses a meeting of the Conservative parliamentary party on Tuesday night.
But a senior Tory MP, Mark Harper, responded to Johnson in the House of Commons that he was “no longer…worthy” of being prime minister after his apology.
London Metropolitan Police are investigating dozens of suspected lockout breaches by Johnson and his staff at the Downing Street complex where he lives and works.
He said that in the past week officers had so far issued more than 50 citations.
The scandal, the latest in a series of controversies that has plagued Johnson since last year, left his position on the line and MPs from his Conservative Party in a rebellious mood.
But he boosted his chances of survival with what is seen as a tough response to Ukraine, which diverted attention from the furor when it was most vulnerable in February.
Britain’s cost-of-living crisis is also credited with distracting people from the scandal, while Johnson has made several major policy announcements aimed at his pro-Brexit political base.
They include controversial plans to send migrants and asylum seekers crossing the English Channel thousands of miles away to Rwanda.