Boris Johnson apologies to pandemic victims at COVID inquiry

The former UK leader will speak at the ongoing inquiry on Wednesday and Thursday, following criticism from colleagues and the public on how he handled the pandemic.


Disgraced former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has apologised for the “pain and the loss and the suffering” of the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom.

Speaking at the ongoing COVID inquiry in London, he added that he “understands the feelings of these victims and their families”, repeating that he is “deeply sorry”.

Adding that he remains grateful to healthcare workers and other public servants who were on the frontline during the pandemic, Johnson explained that he hopes the inquiry will get “the answers these families are rightly asking”.

Johnson acknowledged that his government was too slow to grasp the scale of the crisis, although he skirted questions over whether any of his decisions had contributed to the country’s high death toll – one of the worst across the globe.

Testifying under oath at the inquiry, Johnson acknowledged that “we underestimated the scale and the pace of the challenge” when reports of a new virus began to emerge from China in early 2020.

The “panic level was not sufficiently high,” he admitted.

Last week, the former Health Secretary told the inquiry last week that he had tried to raise the alarm inside the government.

Matt Hancock claimed that thousands of lives could have been saved by putting the country under lockdown a few weeks earlier than the eventual date of 23 March 2020.

Britain went on to have one of Europe’s longest and strictest lockdowns. With the deaths of more than 232,000 people, it comes in at close to the top of the continent’s highest death tolls

Johnson acknowledged the government had “made mistakes” but put emphasis on apparent collective failure rather than his own errors.

He claimed that ministers, civil servants and scientific advisers had failed to sound a “loud enough klaxon of alarm” about the virus.

“If we had collectively stopped to think about the mathematical implications of some of the forecasts that were being made… we might have operated differently,” Johnson said.

Grilled by inquiry lawyer Hugo Keith, he acknowledged that he did not attend any of the government’s five Cobra crisis meetings on the new virus in February 2020. He admitted to looking only “once or twice” meeting minutes from the government’s scientific advisory group.

Johnson also claimed he had relied on “distilled” advice from his science and medicine advisers.

His testimony was interrupted as four people stood up in court as he spoke, holding signs saying: “The dead can’t hear your apologies,” before being escorted out by security staff.

Following their removal, he admitted his government had made mistakes.

“Inevitably, in the course of trying to handle a very, very difficult pandemic in which we had to balance appalling harms on either side of the decision, we may have made mistakes,” Johnson said, adding “Inevitably, we got some things wrong”.

He did assert, however, “I think we were doing our best at the time.”


The former prime minister had arrived at the inquiry venue at daybreak, several hours before he was due to take the stand, avoiding a protest by relatives of some of those who died after contracting the virus.

A group gathered outside the office building where the inquiry was set, some holding pictures of their loved ones. A banner declared: “Let the bodies pile high” – a statement attributed to Johnson by an aide. Another sign read: “Johnson partied while people died.”

Johnson agreed in late 2021 to hold a public inquiry after heavy pressure from bereaved families. The probe, led by retired Judge Heather Hallett, is expected to take three years to complete, though interim reports will be issued starting next year.

Johnson has submitted a written evidence statement to the inquiry but has not handed over some 5,000 WhatsApp messages from several key weeks between February and June 2020. They were on a phone Johnson was told to stop using when it emerged that the number had been publicly available online for years. Johnson later said he’d forgotten the password to unlock it.

At the inquiry on Wednesday, he reiterated: “Can I, for the avoidance of doubt, make it absolutely clear I haven’t removed any WhatsApps from my phone?”.


Wednesday marks the first day he’s expected to be questioned by the Inquiry. He will also face them on Thursday. 

The controversial leader, who resigned his post last June, will be grilled over his handling of the pandemic – as well as his government’s response.

The inquiry has so far heard and seen clear evidence of disarray inside Johnson’s cabinet, especially during the early weeks of the outbreak.

There has been public outcry, too, over lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street which Johnson long denied even happened. 

Senior officials got drunk and partied during these events, while the country was in full lockdown, with some people unable to say goodbye to dying loved ones. 


Earlier this year, a Parliament committee found that he had repeatedly and deliberately lied about breaking COVID lockdown rules.

In a damning 30,000-word paper, the body said his denials were “so disingenuous that they were deliberate attempts to mislead the Committee”, also referring to the “frequency with which he closed his mind to the truth.”

As a result, he stepped down with immediate effect as an MP and Johnson, his wife Carrie and now Prime Minister – then Chancellor – Rishi Sunak among more than 100 staff fined by police.

At the COVID Inquiry, Johnson is likely to be asked to explain why he initially tried to play down the threat posed by the deadly virus. He’ll also face questions over whether he failed to chair Cobra meetings coordinating the government’s response early on in the pandemic.

The Inquiry has already heard several pieces of damning evidence against the former PM.


One particularly condemnatory example came from chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance. In a diary entry written on 19 September 2020, he wrote: ”[Johnson] is all over the place and so completely inconsistent. You can see why it was so difficult to get agreement to lock down the first time.”

Speaking in front of the Inquiry panel in November, Vallance also claimed that Johnson had been “bamboozled” by the myriad scientific evidence about the pandemic.

Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, had similar criticisms.

In written evidence presented to the inquiry, he claimed that, at the start of 2020, Johnson was distracted by “financial problems”, his divorce and pressure from his then-girlfriend Carrie wanted to “finalise the announcement of their engagement”.

Early that year, Lee Cain, Johnson’s former director of communications sent a message to Cummings asserting that the PM “doesn’t think [COVID] is a big deal and he doesn’t think anything can be done and his focus is elsewhere”.


“He thinks it’ll be like swine flu and he thinks his main danger is taking the economy into a slump,” Cain added.

Rishi Sunak is also expected to give evidence later in December.

The inquiry will not find any individual guilty of a crime. It aims to take lessons away from how the crisis was handled and how the UK could put in place preparation for a similar event in the future.

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Britain’s COVID-19 inquiry exposes the rot at the heart of Whitehall

LONDON — Everyone knew the British state had problems. This week revealed just how deep the rot goes.

Britain’s public inquiry into the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic stepped up a gear this week, with a procession of key witnesses taking the stand who were at the heart of the U.K. government in 2020.

The punchy oral testimony — and sweary WhatsApp messages — of Dominic Cummings, the former No. 10 Downing Street adviser turned arch enemy of Boris Johnson, grabbed all the headlines, as he attacked his old boss while struggling to account for his own crude and abusive language.

But it was Cummings’ long, incisive written statement to the inquiry, along with the testimony of a former top civil servant, Helen MacNamara, which contained the starkest home truths for the British state.

“I think we are absolutely fucked. I think the country is heading for a disaster. I think we are going to kill thousands,” MacNamara was revealed to have told colleagues in March 2020, as coronavirus began to grip the U.K.

Those words, from the-then second most powerful civil servant in the country, came as she and other senior officials abruptly realized the U.K. government had no real plan to deal with a global pandemic of that nature — despite years of confident reassurances to the contrary.

“I have just been talking to the [U.K. government] official Mark Sweeney, who is in charge of coordinating with the Department for Health,” MacNamara recalled saying. “He said — ‘I have been told for years that there is a whole plan for this. There is no plan.’ We are in huge trouble.”

What followed that dawning realization was an intense period of chaos, as ministers and officials grappled with never-before-considered questions such as whether to ban people from meeting their loved ones, and whether to place Britain into a strict lockdown.

Fingers are now being pointed at both individuals and wider systems for all that went wrong.

The blame game

Unsurprisingly, Britain’s ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson has taken his fair share of criticism this week.

“It was the wrong crisis for this prime minister’s skillset,” Lee Cain, Johnson’s former director of communications, said in his evidence Tuesday. Others were less diplomatic — including Cain himself, in private WhatsApp messages handed to the inquiry by ex-colleagues.

In one such WhatsApp exchange, Cummings and Cain — old friends from the 2016 ‘Vote Leave’ campaign — detailed how they found Johnson “exhausting” to work with due to his lurches back and forth on key policy decisions.

“Pretty much everyone calls him ‘the trolley’,” Cummings told the inquiry, referring to a disparaging nickname he invented for Johnson due to the ex-PM’s inability to hold a clear line.

But beyond the Boris-bashing, Cummings and other ex-officials focused their ire on the broader state of Britain’s governing systems, rather than bungling individuals at its centre.

Cummings described the all-important Cabinet Office department — responsible for organizing the business of government and linking different departments together — as a “bombsite” and a “dumpster fire,” with a “huge problem of quality control … inconsistent data, inconsistent facts.”

This disorganization had consequences.

On March 16, 2020, Cummings said he received an email from a senior official warning that the Cabinet Office had yet to see any real plans for the pandemic from government departments — “never mind evaluated and fixed them,” he said. The virus had been in the U.K. for almost three months.

“[The Cabinet Office] cannot drive priorities or fix problems with departments,” Cummings wrote.

What became clear over the course of this week was that the British government was slow to take the virus seriously in early 2020 and even slower at figuring out a coherent and consistent plan to deal with it, jumping back and forth between early efforts aimed at pursuing herd immunity — until it became clear such an approach would be catastrophic.

“There are many signs that the way the Cabinet Office works was extremely ill-suited to this crisis,” Giles Wilkes, a former No. 10 adviser and senior fellow at the Institute for Government think tank, told POLITICO.

“It is very good for bringing together the people needed to avoid rows blowing up the government. In our system that is really valuable. But from [Cummings’] very compelling account, it was not brilliantly set up to be the body that focusses the PM and his power on a rapidly changing, dangerous situation,” Wilkes added.

‘Toxic’ culture

MacNamara, second in command in the Cabinet Office at the time, drew similarly damning conclusions.

She described how the British government “moved up the gears more slowly than the pace of the crisis,” and remained fixated on standard day-to-day government business as the pandemic began to rage.

She also lambasted the culture at the heart of government — arguing a “macho” and “toxic” environment fostered by a largely male leadership team hampered the broader response.

She said female experts were ignored, and senior women in government “looked over.” She pointed to a lack of consideration of childcare during school closures, and of the impact of lockdown restrictions upon victims of domestic violence, as examples of policy areas that suffered due to a lack of a “female perspective” inside government.

One result of that toxic environment saw MacNamara herself targeted by Cummings with misogynistic language in a WhatsApp message to a colleague revealed by the inquiry. She said she was “disappointed” Johnson didn’t do more to keep his top adviser in check.

Britain’s current top brass are pushing back, at least a little. Speaking Thursday, U.K. Science Secretary Michelle Donelan insisted she did not recognize MacNamara’s account of the culture inside government.

Coming attractions

Cummings has argued — including in multiple tweets since his evidence session ended — that observers should focus on his arguments about the broader failures of the system.

But it is the failings of one particular individual, Johnson, who was ultimately responsible for directing the government, which will continue to be scrutinized in the months ahead.

“If the PM at the heart of this is not a functional entity, cannot make a decision, has fundamentally poor judgment or lack of attention, then it doesn’t matter if the system around him is brilliant or rubbish. Things will go awry when they reach his desk,” Wilkes told POLITICO.

“The central role of the PM, and his rubbishness, cannot be evaded.”

Johnson’s former Health Secretary Matt Hancock has also come under intense fire this week, for his role in the lack of apparent planning for a pandemic, his handling of testing targets, and the crisis in British care homes as COVID-19 hit.

Both MacNamara and Cummings accused Hancock of telling falsehoods during the pandemic — or, in MacNamara’s case, she agreed he had a habit of “regularly telling people things that they later discovered weren’t true.”

Johnson’s successor-but-one as prime minister, Rishi Sunak — who was U.K. chancellor during the pandemic — also has questions to answer. He will likely face particular scrutiny for his now-infamous “eat out to help out” scheme — a government-sponsored discount to encourage diners back into restaurants in the summer of 2020 — which some medical experts believe helped spread the virus.

Conveniently enough, all three men — Johnson, Sunak and Hancock — are slated to appear before the inquiry in the same week at the end of November, two people with knowledge of the inquiry told POLITICO.

All of Westminster is holding its breath.

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Happy Rishiversary! Highs and lows of Rishi Sunak’s first year in power

LONDON — Happy anniversary to one of the UK’s most talked-about couples: No. 10 Downing Street and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

It’s been a tumultuous love affair, with a will-they-won’t-they start — and enough bumps in the road to keep a local pothole repair team busy.

As Sunak tries to restore the reputation of his governing Tories — still languishing in the polls ahead of an expected election next year — POLITICO takes a trip down memory lane with a month-by-month rundown of some of the key highlights. Buckle up!

October 2022

It finally happened. After one failed leadership run — in which he lost to Liz Truss and, in a way, to a lettuce — Sunak was elected the new leader of the Conservatives on October 24, 2022.

A day later he became prime minister, and vowed his government would be marked by “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.” That was in no way a massive sub-tweet of Boris Johnson.

Sunak’s first port of call was to pick his cabinet. He took a slow and steady approach, which No. 10 insisted was “not indecisiveness” — even as some MPs, accustomed to the adrenalin of the Truss and Johnson administrations, found the wait tedious. Sunak’s first few days seemed to mark him out as a PM in control.

Success rating: 9/10. Congrats, Rishi!

November 2022 

November saw a scrap about the COP climate summit. Having initially said he wouldn’t attend the COP27 bash, Sunak caved and traveled to Egypt for the conference on November 7, insisting he absolutely loved the planet.

Later in the month, Sunak had the fun task of creating a new government budget with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, seeking to right the economic ship after the drama of Truss’ brief spell in office.

The cheery document, billed in some quarters as Austerity 2.0 but actually delaying a lot of pain until after the next general election, unveiled a £55 billion package of tax increases and spending cuts, an attempt to ensure that Britain’s economic downturn was “shallower, and hurts people less,” according to Hunt. Something for the bumper sticker!

Its key measures indeed survived contact with the House of Commons and, crucially, didn’t spook the markets.

Success rating: 7/10. COP kerfuffle notwithstanding, Sunak and Hunt could breathe a sigh of relief for a whole eight seconds.

December 2022

Calling it a “winter of discontent” would be lazy plagiarism. So let’s go with “winter of discontent 2.0.”

A whopping 843,000 working days were lost in December to strikes, according to Britain’s statistics authority — the highest since those revolutionary days of November 2011.

With nurses, train drivers, and postal workers all downing tools (or mail?) throughout December, Sunak had a huge problem on his hands, and it didn’t get sorted until some time later. Despite the British love of moaning about train delays, the public largely supported the striking workers — especially the nurses.

Success rating: 3/10. ‘Tis the season of goodwill.

January 2023 

It was a month of ups and downs for Sunak, who gave some … mixed messages on following the rules.

Sunak swiftly fired his embattled Conservative Party chairman Nadhim Zahawi after an independent probe found that Zahawi had not been sufficiently transparent about his private dealings with Britain’s tax authorities.

In a letter to Zahawi confirming his sacking, Sunak reminded us all he had vowed to put “integrity, professionalism, and accountability at every level” of his administration.

This is the same dude who started the month by … getting fined by police for not wearing a seatbelt.

Success rating: 5/10. Big boys wear their seatbelts. 

February 2023 

Sunak seemed strapped in this month, and it ended up being a pretty good one for the prime minister, who finally managed to reach a deal with the EU over contentious post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland.

Sounding like a proud father at a press conference in Windsor, Sunak said Britain and the EU “may have had our differences in the past, but we are allies, trading partners and friends,” and hailed “a new chapter in our relationship.” A promised rebellion by allies of Sunak’s old nemesis Boris Johnson later came to nothing, which definitely didn’t provide Sunak with a good old chuckle.

Success rating: 10/10. Sunak managed the previously unthinkable: moving post-Brexit policy forward without loads of kicking and screaming from the Conservative Party. Plenty of time for that later!

March 2023 

March saw the U.K. build on its much-heralded AUKUS pact with Australia and the U.S., with Sunak joining President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at a submarine base in California to hail a new defense mega-deal between the three nations. It marked another win for Sunak’s plan to repair Britain’s battered image abroad and create jobs along the way.

Closer to home, however, the PM had some proper first-world problems brewing.

As voters grappled with ever-rising energy costs, the Guardian revealed that the mega-rich leader’s swimming pool in his Yorkshire home used so much energy that the local electricity grid had to be upgraded.

Such everyman woes provided a great backdrop for another government budget. Chancellor Hunt had them cheering from the rafters across the U.K. as he declared that the country would duck a technical recession this year.

Plans to help with the eye-watering cost of childcare and address Britain’s sluggish economic growth also featured prominently in another fiscal statement that may not have shifted many votes, but came off without major drama.

Success rating: Big deal and a big budget. Rishi, go have a swim to cool off. 7/10.

April 2023 

April was — whisper it – a pretty quiet month, no small feat in British politics.

There was the small matter of an investigation being launched into a potential breach of the MP code of conduct by Sunak. It would be a whole four months, however, before that probe found he had indeed broken the rules, but only as a result of “confusion.” We’ve all been there.

Success rating: 5/10. A holding-pattern month.

May 2023

In May, Rishi faced his first big electoral test as prime minister: local elections. He didn’t do well, with the Conservatives losing over 1,000 seats, and both Labour and the Liberal Democrats making big gains.

Success rating: 2/10. Blame the voters!

June 2023

Still, nothing proves you’re confronting your problems at home like … heading to the other side of the Atlantic for a big visit to America. Sunak got his global mojo back on a trip that saw an unlikely bromance blossom between Sunak and Biden.

Biden pronounced the special relationship “in real good shape” — and even got Sunak’s name right this time (if not his job title.)

The rest of Sunak’s month was dominated by an angry row with Boris Johnson, who quit in a huff alongside a few allies after a damning report on his conduct in the Partygate affair. The row revealed how few acolytes Johnson still had in the parliament, and arguably strengthened Sunak’s position as the only game in town.

Success rating: 9/10. If it doesn’t work out here, Sunak could always make it big stateside.

July 2023

You can always count on a by-election or two to spice things up, and these were a mixed bag for Sunak. The prime minister’s Tories got a thumping in fights for the parliamentary seats of Selby and Ainsty, and Somerton and Frome.

There was one glimmer of hope, however: A narrow and unexpected win in Uxbridge, Johnson’s now-vacant seat, showed Team Sunak that targeted campaigning against environmental policies seen by some as overbearing could pay off.

Also in June, Sunak made a bold pay offer to striking public sector workers, and helped ease industrial tensions.

Success rating: 6/10. Few expected the Uxbridge result, even if Sunak’s fortunes elsewhere looked dicey.

August 2023

August saw grim headlines on what the government had billed as “small boats week” — a chance to show off all the hard work Sunak’s government was doing to stop asylum seekers crossing the English Channel in unsafe vessels.

As the week unfolded, disaster struck one element of the government’s tough asylum policy. A plan to move migrants onto the controversial Bibby Stockholm barge instead of putting them up in expensive hotel accommodation was derailed by concerns about legionella bacteria in the water supply. It was a PR headache for a government that hardly needed one.

On the brighter side, Sunak carried out a smooth and limited government reshuffle without anybody calling him mean names.

Success rating: 4/10. Nobody had “legionella” on the comms grid.

September 2023 

Mr. Brexit Fix-it returned in September as a deal struck by Sunak ensured the U.K. successfully rejoined the EU’s Horizon multibillion-euro science funding scheme. It was another piece of unfinished Brexit business resolved, to the delight of top scientists and other massive nerds.

Sunak also seemed to land on a clear domestic dividing line in September. In a hastily-arranged Downing Street speech after his plans leaked, Sunak took a big red pen to parts of the government’s climate agenda, announcing a slowing of several key U.K. green policies.

A fierce backlash ensued from business groups, climate activists and some members of Sunak’s own Conservative Party.

But the PM’s supporters saw it as the first time Sunak had drawn bold lines in the sand ahead of the election, gambling that tapping into anxiety among motorists could see the Uxbridge trick repeated.

Success rating: 5/10. Nice Horizon deal, shame about the planet!

October 2023

The Conservative Party conference was dominated by … Liz Truss and trains.

Yep, the star of last year’s show made a triumphant comeback on the conference fringes, where she was greeted like a returning hero and urged Sunak to push for economic growth. Truss — plus Brexiteer-in-chief Nigel Farage, who swanned around the place — showed just how fractious the Tories remain, with plenty of Conservative leadership wannabes flaunting their wares.

The conference meanwhile saw endless speculation about whether Sunak would cancel a key part of a major high-speed rail link, an announcement he saved for his big speech at the close, a treat to the North of England, which famously hates useful transport links.

October would get grimmer still for Sunak, as two more by-election defeats suggested Labour really is on the comeback trail. There’s always November!

Success rating: 4/10. A month of Labour gains, trains and Nigel-mobiles.

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Meet the New Conservatives giving Rishi Sunak a migration headache

LONDON — Watch out Rishi Sunak, there’s a new right-wing Tory pressure group in town.

The New Conservatives — a group of 25 MPs from the 2017 and 2019 parliamentary intakes — launched Monday with a headline-grabbing call for the Tory prime minister to do more to cut migration.

They’re urging Sunak — already under pressure over the issue — to focus on meeting his predecessor-but-one Boris Johnson’s 2019 manifesto pledge to get net numbers to below 226,000. So who are the New Conservatives? And what exactly do they want?

The new group is run by Danny Kruger, a former aide to Johnson, and Miriam Cates, a backer of Home Secretary Suella Braverman when she ran for the Tory leadership last year.

Other members of the group include backbenchers Tom Hunt, Jonathan Gullis, Gareth Bacon, Duncan Kaker, Paul Bristow, Brendan Clarke-Smith, James Daly, Anna Firth, Nick Fletcher, Chris Green, Eddie Hughes, Mark Jenkinson, Andrew Lewer, Marco Longhi, Robin Millar, and Lia Nici.

Lee Anderson, the pugnacious former Labour aide turned Tory deputy chairman, was conspicuously absent from the event — and all literature — despite being part of the group and billed to speak right up until late last night. Stand-in Kruger insisted “he’s unwell in bed” but also “doesn’t officially endorse policy proposals” due to his party role.

Eagle-eyed readers will note that this list does not tot up to the advertised 25.

When asked about this at the press conference, Hunt said there were a “wide group of MPs who are supportive of our work,” but that those listed are the ones specifically endorsing the migration policies presented today.

So what do they want?

Cates kicked off the group’s launch event in Westminster by making it pretty clear that the group’s immediate focus is on migration — though there’s clearly plenty more to come.

Her message to Sunak? “The choice is this: cut immigration, keep our promise to voters, and restore democratic, cultural and economic security, or kick the can down the road, lose the next election, and resign ourselves to a low growth, low-wage, labor-intensive service economy with a population forecast to rise by another 20 million in the next 25 years.”

The New Conservatives outlined a 12-point-plan Monday that they claim will do just that. But some of its key recommendations are likely to prove contentious.

Perhaps the most headline-grabbing point is a call to scrap Health and Care Visas, launched to fill gaps in the health and social care sector with overseas workers. The group says this will cut the number of new visas issued by 117,000 and reduce long-term international migration by 82,000.

But big questions remain over exactly how the resultant gaps in the health and social care workforce would be filled with British recruits. UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea said the government has “done nothing to solve the growing crisis in care. Now a group of its MPs want ministers to make things a whole lot worse.”

Beyond that pledge, the New Conservatives also want to reserve university study visas for only the “brightest” international students; stop overseas graduates staying for up to two years in the U.K. without a job; and place stricter limits on social housing being allocated to migrants.

They also want to “rapidly implement” the government’s Illegal Migration Bill, which — given its mauling in the House of Lords Monday — may be a tough ask.

Are they rivals to Rishi?

The group sternly rejects the notion that they’re here to cause trouble for the prime minister, with Daly telling assembled journalists Monday that he’s “depressed” by questions of rivalry.

Just to hammer the point home, Daly added that “every single person here today supports the prime minister.”

But they’re undoubtedly a thorn in Sunak’s side as the next election looms.

The prime minister’s official spokesperson insisted Monday that the government’s plans on migration don’t need toughening up. “We have to strike the right balance between tackling net migration and taking the people we need,” the spokesperson said, adding “we believe they strike the right balance currently. We keep our migration policies under review.”

Is this just about migration?

So far — but expect to hear plenty more from the group in the coming months.

Speaking to POLITICO, Hunt said he sees the group focusing on three main issues: migration; law and order; and what they see as the threat to Britain from “woke” ideas.

Hunt stressed that he wants the outfit to be “dipping their toes” into anti-woke issues “generally as a push-back, rather than waking up every morning and thinking ‘right, what’s our next big culture war wedge issue?’” So expect some anti-woke seasoning sprinkled on the New Conservatives’ main course.

Hunt says he’s animated by what he sees as “wokeness” in schools, and a preponderance of “self-loathing in this country.”

“I get concerned when I see the odd poll that says the majority of 18-25-year-olds see Churchill as a villain rather than a hero,” he said. That doesn’t mean the group will call for Britain to start “glossing over the past and saying we’ve always got it right,” he added — but recognizing that “in a struggle of Russia and China, we’re a damn sight better than them.”

So will this agenda help the Tories win in 2024 — or recover afterwards?

Polls suggest the Tories are on course to lose the next election, and badly. The New Conservatives want their ideas featured in the 2024 election manifesto, and believe they have the agenda to connect with working-class voters in the so-called Red Wall seats Johnson snatched from Labour in 2019 and which now look vulnerable.

Cates told the audience gathered in Westminster Monday that: “We want to win, of course we do, but it’s more than that. It’s because we believe that we still have, despite everything, the best chance of delivering for the British people.” She said of the party’s 2019 platform: “The demand for that offer is still there. We want to fulfill it.”

Not all Tories are convinced. Conservative commentator John Oxley argued that the New Conservatives’ impact may be short-lived.

It is, he said, “dominated by the sort of 2019, Red Wall MPs who are very likely to lose their seats next time around. They may be trying to sway the manifesto in a way that helps them, or mark themselves out as immigration hardliners to try and buck the national trend, but it seems unlikely to have much sway with Rishi Sunak.”

And he warned: “Equally, it seems unlikely this group will have much impact on the future of the Conservative Party, as so many of them will be out of parliament when that discussion begins after the election.”

Dan Bloom contributed reporting.

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Boris Johnson’s career spanned dizzying heights and tumultuous lows

He was the Mayor who revelled in the glory of hosting the 2012 London Olympics, and the man who led the Conservatives to a whopping election victory on the back of his mission to “get Brexit done.”

But Boris Johnson’s time as Prime Minister was marred by his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and a steady stream of ethics allegations. In 2022, he was forced from power, and on June 9, he quit as a lawmaker, jumping before he could be sanctioned over lockdown-breaching parties during the pandemic.

Here is a timeline of events relating to Mr. Johnson’s political career:

2001-2008: Serves as a member of Parliament in the House of Commons representing the constituency of Henley.

2008-2016: Serves as London Mayor, overseeing 2012 London Olympics.

2016: Co-leader of the campaign to take Britain out of the European Union, in opposition to then-Prime Minister David Cameron, a fellow Conservative. Cameron resigns after voters approve Brexit in a national referendum on June 23, 2016.

2016-2018: Serves as Foreign Secretary under Mr. Cameron’s successor, Prime Minister Theresa May. Mr. Johnson resigns in July 2018 in opposition to Ms. May’s strategy for a “soft” Brexit that would maintain close ties with the E.U.

June 7, 2019: Theresa May resigns as Conservative Party leader over her failure to persuade Parliament to back the Brexit agreement she negotiated with the E.U. The party is split between those who back Ms. May and hard-liners, led by Mr. Johnson, who are willing to risk a no-deal Brexit in order to wring concessions from the E.U.

July 23, 2019: Mr. Johnson is elected Conservative Party leader in a vote by party members. He takes office as Prime Minister the next day, inheriting a minority government that relies on votes from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to pass legislation. Mr. Johnson insists Britain will leave the E.U. on Oct. 31, with or without a deal.

Aug. 28, 2019: Mr. Johnson announces he will shut down Parliament until mid-October, giving opponents less time to thwart a no-deal Brexit.

Sept. 3, 2019: Twenty-one rebel Conservative Party lawmakers support legislation requiring the government to seek an extension of Brexit negotiations if it can’t negotiate an agreement with the E.U. The measure passes and the rebels are expelled from the party.

Sept. 5, 2019: Mr. Johnson asserts he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask the E.U. for another extension.

Sept. 24, 2019: U.K. Supreme Court rules government’s suspension of Parliament was unlawful.

Oct. 19, 2019: Mr. Johnson asks the E.U. to delay Brexit again. New deadline set for Jan. 31.

Nov. 6, 2019: Parliament is dissolved and early elections are set for mid-December as Mr. Johnson seeks a mandate for his Brexit strategy.

Dec. 12, 2019: Mr. Johnson wins an 80-seat majority in the general election, giving him the backing to push through Brexit legislation. The victory makes Mr. Johnson the most electorally successful Conservative leader since Margaret Thatcher.

Jan. 23, 2020: The Brexit deal becomes law after approval by U.K. Parliament. European Parliament approves the deal six days later.

March 23, 2020: Mr. Johnson places U.K. in first lockdown due to COVID-19.

April 5, 2020: Mr. Johnson hospitalised and later moved to intensive care with COVID-19. He is released from the hospital on April 12, thanking the nurses who sat with him through the night to make sure he kept breathing.

Nov. 3-4, 2021: Mr. Johnson’s government orders Conservative lawmakers to support a change in ethics rules to delay the suspension of Owen Paterson, a Johnson supporter who had been censured for breaching lobbying rules. The measure passes. A day later, facing an angry backlash from lawmakers of all parties, Mr. Johnson reverses course and allows lawmakers to vote on Mr. Paterson’s suspension. Mr. Paterson resigns.

Nov. 30, 2021: Allegations surface that government officials attended parties in government offices during November and December 2020 in violation of COVID-19 lockdown rules. The scandal grows to reports of more than a dozen parties. Mr. Johnson denies the allegations, but opposition leaders criticize the government for breaking the Law as people across the country made sacrifices to combat the pandemic.

Dec. 8, 2021: Mr. Johnson authorises investigation into the scandal, dubbed “Partygate.” Pressure builds for a leadership challenge, but fizzles.

April 9: Mr. Johnson meets Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv, pledging a new package of military and economic support. Mr. Johnson’s staunch support for Ukraine after Russia’s invasion helps bolster Mr. Johnson and his supporters, who argue the government should not focus on domestic political squabbles.

April 12: Mr. Johnson is fined 50 pounds ($63) for attending one of the lockdown parties. Mr. Johnson apologises but insists he didn’t know he was breaking the rules.

May 22: Findings of the “Partygate” investigation are published, detailing 16 gatherings at Mr. Johnson’s home and office and other government offices between May 2020 and April 2021, at a time when millions of people were unable to see friends and family.

June 6: Mr. Johnson narrowly wins a vote of no confidence, with Conservative lawmakers voting 211—148 to back him. The scale of the revolt — some 41% voted against him — shakes his grip on power.

June 15: Christopher Geidt quits as ethics adviser to Mr. Johnson, accusing the Conservative government of planning to flout conduct rules.

June 24: Mr. Johnson’s Conservatives lose two former strongholds to opposition parties in special elections.

June 29: Parliament’s cross-party Privileges Committee issues a call for evidence for a probe into whether Mr. Johnson misled Parliament over lockdown parties.

June 30: Lawmaker Chris Pincher resigns as Conservative Deputy Chief Whip amid allegations he assaulted two guests at a private members club in London. Previous sexual misconduct allegations emerge about Mr. Pincher. Questions swirl about whether Mr. Johnson knew about the claims when Mr. Pincher was given the job.

July 5: Mr. Johnson apologises for his handling of the Mr. Pincher scandal and says he had forgotten about being told of the allegations. Two of Mr. Johnson’s most senior Cabinet ministers, Treasury Chief Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid, quit the government.

July 6: Some three dozen junior Ministers resign from the government, attacking Mr. Johnson’s leadership.

July 7: Mr. Johnson resigns as Conservative Party leader, but plans to remain as Prime Minister while the leadership contest is held.

Sept 6: Mr. Johnson leaves office, replaced by Liz Truss.

Oct. 25: Mr. Sunak replaces Ms. Truss as Prime Minister after her tax-cutting economic plans caused turmoil on financial markets.

November 2022: Mr. Johnson begins stepping up speaking engagements that take him around the world from India to Nigeria to Singapore to the United States. During the current Parliamentary term, he reports earning 2.7 million pounds ($3.4 million) from speaking engagements.

March 3, 2023: A U.K. Parliamentary committee says evidence suggests Mr. Johnson repeatedly misled Parliament about his knowledge of lockdown-breaking parties at his Downing Street office.

March 22: Mr. Johnson insists “hand on heart” that he never lied to lawmakers about rule-breaking government parties, mounting a robust defence at a hearing that could damage or even end his tumultuous political career.

June 9, 2023: Mr. Johnson resigns his Parliamentary seat after receiving report on lockdown plans.

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How bullying became Westminster’s latest culture war

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LONDON —  Rishi Sunak’s righthand man is out of a job, after an inquiry found he mistreated civil servants. But this is Westminster, 2023 — which means the never-ending culture war just found a new target.

Dominic Raab resigned as Britain’s deputy prime minister and justice secretary Friday after a report by the barrister Adam Tolley found he acted in a way which was “intimidating” and “unreasonably and persistently aggressive” toward his officials. 

Yet despite Tolley, a respected independent figure, concluding Raab’s behavior “inevitably” caused staff to feel undermined and humiliated, the outgoing minister left government with a stinging attack on the investigation, claiming the bar for bullying had been set “dangerously low.”

Raab’s departure over matters of personal conduct — two-and-a-half years after former Home Secretary Priti Patel was allowed to keep her job in similar circumstances — marks a decisive shift in the way bullying is treated in Westminster and Whitehall, where complaints by junior staff are widespread but rarely acted upon.

The trouble is, not everyone thinks it’s a step in the right direction.

Standard procedure?

Senior figures throwing their weight around in the corridors of power is nothing new. Gordon Brown was notorious for outbursts of rage as prime minister, while his predecessor Tony Blair’s pugilistic press secretary Alistair Campbell is acknowledged as the inspiration behind Malcolm Tucker, the terrifying antihero of political sitcom The Thick of It. 

Parliamentary staffers and civil servants are likely to come across a dizzying range of behavior in their workplace, from the mildly eccentric to the downright aggressive. 

Landmark reports in 2018 found there was a “widespread” problem with bullying in Westminster, and 12 percent of Whitehall officials reported they had been subjected to bullying. 

Since then, a handful of high-profile MPs have had bullying complaints upheld against them, including Patel and the former House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow. 

Aspects of the employment structure at Westminster and Whitehall are widely seen as contributing to the conditions for such behavior to thrive and go unchecked. 

MPs’ offices are a law unto themselves, with little formal human resources oversight, meaning the people who join their offices could find themselves working for a model boss or a raging tyrant. 

“Working for an MP is an incredibly strange job and there is an understanding that things will always have to be a bit different,” as one staffer puts it, “but the kind of behavior that goes on — in any other corporation you’d be suspended.”

Before the outcome of the Tolley inquiry, Raab’s team briefed that he would make no apologies for expecting high standards of civil servants | Tolga Akmen/EPA-EFE

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA trade union, argues that the lack of clear procedure for dealing with bullying by ministers “actually encourages those extremes of behavior,” because offenders know they are unlikely to face consequences.

Current and former officials who spoke to POLITICO shared stories of being screamed at in front of colleagues, having their work screwed up and thrown in the bin, and being ordered to clean the office floor — and insisted none were isolated episodes, but part of a pattern of behavior. 

Some of these incidents have resulted in formal complaints but many more have not. Two high-ranking ministers are among those named privately as the subject of persistent bullying concerns. 

One former No. 10 adviser said there was a ‘whisper network’ around bullying, meaning the known offenders in parliament “don’t get punished — they become known as being a bully, and people just don’t apply for jobs with them.”

Meet ‘the real world’

The nettle is especially difficult to grasp because the very concept of ‘bullying’ is contested far more fiercely than other forms of misconduct, such as sexual harassment.

Claims have long been met with raised eyebrows, and the underlying suspicion that much of what is termed “bullying” is in fact an overreaction to a robust management style.

In a case of minister vs. civil servant, all the ingredients are there for a new front in Britain’s culture wars.

Before the outcome of the Tolley inquiry, Raab’s team briefed that he would make no apologies for expecting high standards of civil servants. In his resignation letter, Raab went even harder.

“Ministers must be able to give direct critical feedback on briefings and submissions to senior officials,” he wrote, adding that the bar for bullying had been set “dangerously low.” 

In other words, lily-livered civil servants — whom many Conservatives suspect of harboring anti-Tory, anti-Brexit sentiment — were simply not able to cope with the demands placed upon them. 

One Tory MP elected in 2019, Mark Jenkinson, acknowledged bullying does exist, but said some examples cited in recent newspaper reports, such as throwing small objects in anger, or telephoning staff unannounced, did not meet the bar. 

“Anybody who thinks this is bullying needs to meet the real world,” Jenkinson said. “But maybe I just think that because I’m a Northerner.”

While No. 10 officials insist that the PM did not order Dominic Raab to quit, he clearly did not offer him the same protection as Boris Johnson provided former Home Secretary Priti Patel in similar circumstances in 2020 | Neil Hall/EPA-EFE

Matthew Parris, a Times columnist who was a Tory MP in the 1970s and 1980s, said that bullying is now “much less widespread than it used to be, and at the same time people are more sensitive to it.”

He noted that in his day, “MPs would regularly blow their top and bawl somebody out,” and that “most fearsome of all were the secretaries who ran our offices.”

‘Hard process’

The counter-argument runs that bullying is no more subjective than other type of workplace dispute, and can be tested against established definitions set out by mediation service ACAS and under codes of conduct for MPs and ministers. 

And those who have been involved in a grievance process against an MP insist nobody would put themselves through such a gruelling process without good reason.

Jenny McCullough, a former clerk whose bullying complaint against ex-MP Keith Vaz was eventually upheld, said that pursuing her case had been a lengthy, alienating experience, in which he attempted to stall progress and cast doubt on her own motives. 

“The person who complains brings trouble on themselves. It’s a really hard process,” she said, adding that her confidence and feelings of self-worth had not fully recovered after events which occurred years ago. 

The FDA’s Penman added: “If you’re a civil servant and you think you’re being bullied by a minister, you know only the PM can authorize an investigation — you have no rights and you’re challenging one of the most powerful people in the country.” 

The trade union is now calling for an independent inquiry into bullying and harassment in the civil service in order to establish a new mechanism through which grievances can be lodged against ministers.

Inside the Ministry of Justice, relief at Raab’s departure was mixed with anger at his parting shot. One official said there was “disappointment but not surprise” at the tone of his resignation.

While No. 10 officials insist that the prime minister did not order Raab to quit, he clearly did not offer him the same protection as Boris Johnson provided Patel in 2020, when he ordered colleagues to “form a square around the Prittster.” 

For now, Sunak’s desire to differentiate himself from Johnson may be civil servants’ main weapon on the new frontier of the culture war.

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Liz Truss’ empty ambition put her in power — and shattered her

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Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.

Liz Truss resigned as prime minister on the 45th day of her tenure. As I write, the day after, the Tory Party — Britain’s “natural party of government” for two centuries — is polling at 14 percent. They may go lower, and they will not unite behind any candidate. Like alcoholics who cannot stop drinking because they are already insane, the party is beyond the point of renewal. 

But why is Truss, 47, a former accountant, the crucible of apocalypse? 

Many narratives meet in her. Some of it is not her fault, much of it is absolutely her fault. No child looks in the mirror and longs to be a paradigm when grown, but sometimes fate demands it. Her rise was undeserved, and so is the brutality of her fall.  

I met Truss at university, long before she entered real politics, and she mirrors and watches, as if trying to learn a new language. That is why she is stilted and ethereal: that is why she cannot speak easily or from the heart. 

She is at her most expressive on Instagram, a medium both vapid and vivid. There is nothing to her beyond ambition, which explains the need for mirroring, and, I think, rage: the Britain she dreams of is not a kind place. 

Born in Oxford to a mathematics professor and a teacher, she was raised in Leeds in the north of England. Her parents are left-wing and do not share her politics: I sense an oedipal drama there. She went to a good state school, but with her tendency to rewrite her life for advancement, she trashed its reputation during the summer race to lead the Tory Party, though it got her to Oxford University, the nursery for Tory prime ministers. There she studied politics, philosophy and economics, which gives the young politician the appearance, rather than the actuality, of knowledge. 

She was, notoriously, a Liberal Democrat then, and she gave it her all, advocating for the abolition of the monarchy at their party conference in 1994. Whatever line Truss takes, she gives it her all, as compensation, I suspect, for uncertainty within. She smiled as she resigned. I don’t think I ever met a more isolated woman. 

She became a hard right Tory — presumably to distance herself from her youthful Liberal Democracy, and because Margaret Thatcher is the obvious person to mirror in the Tory Party — worked under three prime ministers and spent eight years in the Cabinet. The niceties and collusions of a liberal democracy do not interest her. She notoriously did not defend the judiciary from a powerful tabloid’s “enemies of the people” headline when Britain was puzzling over how to leave the EU and she was lord chancellor, and she prefers to summon Britain’s fantasy of exceptionalism by insisting, for example, that we eat more British cheese. There is something intensely prosaic and unimaginative about Truss: if she were a year, she would be 1951. Nor can she unite people: when she won, she did not even shake Rishi Sunak’s hand, and she largely excluded his supporters from her cabinet. 

A scandal — she had an affair with her mentor, the former Tory MP Mark Field, though both were married at the time — did not damage her reputation or, apparently, her marriage and this is interesting too: the betrayal of her most intimate relationship. (She likewise betrayed Kwasi Kwarteng, her chancellor and closest friend in politics, sacking him last Friday to try to save herself when the markets rejected her unfunded taxation, and her poll ratings collapsed.) Her husband, Hugh O’Leary, stood outside Downing Street as she resigned, but as they went in, they did not touch each other. 

When Boris Johnson fell, two things put Truss in his place: the Tory Party membership, and Johnson himself. Truss was Johnson’s choice — though he did not say so explicitly, leaving his most avid lieutenants to back her — and his sin-eater. She never repudiated him personally, though she tore up his 2019 manifesto and offered tax cuts and public services cuts, the opposite of his promise to “level up” opportunity across the country. Dominic Cummings — Johnson’s chief strategist, who left politics after losing a power struggle with Johnson’s third wife — says Truss is obsessed with optics and has no idea how to be prime minister. He also says that Johnson chose her aware she would self-destruct, and he might plausibly return. That was the first trap.

Then there is the Tory Party membership, largely affluent, male, southern and white. They were offered Sunak and Truss by the parliamentary party, who preferred Sunak. The membership disliked Sunak for destroying Johnson (his resignation was blamed by Johnson acolytes for triggering the former prime minister’s downfall) and raising taxes and loved Truss because she mirrored them. She spoke to their self-absorption, and their desire for low taxes and a smaller state — being affluent, they do not think they need one. She told them mad things which thrilled them, reanimating the empire: she would ignore Scotland’s first minister; she was ready to bomb Russia if she could find it. (She once told the Russian foreign minister parts of Russia were not in Russia.) A long leadership contest enabled her to impress the party membership and, equally, enabled the wider country to despise her. You can only mirror so many people at once. That was the second trap. 


For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Then Queen Elizabeth II, a far more experienced and successful mirror than Truss, died. Britain was grieved and unwilling to tolerate Truss’ tinny authoritarianism, avoidable errors, and superficial arrogance: humility was required from Johnson’s successor, especially if she were to tear up his manifesto. When she has no one to guide her, she does not know how to do the simplest things. When she entered Westminster Abbey for the queen’s funeral she smirked, presumably because she had precedence over other living prime ministers. That was the third trap. 

Beyond her obvious inability to do the job, Truss is largely a victim of circumstance and bad actors. I see her as a character in a gothic novel: perhaps the second Mrs. de Winter of Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” a nameless girl fleeing through Manderley (the burning Tory Party), obsessed with Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter, who in this conceit is either Boris Johnson or Margaret Thatcher, or both: more powerful ghosts overshadow her. She has no identity and is better understood as a paradigm than an autonomous figure.

She is a paradigm of the Tory Party membership’s distance from the rest of the country, which is an abyss after 12 years in power; a paradigm of the political class’ tendency toward optics above substance; a paradigm of common narcissism, which is thriving; a paradigm of the paranoia, taste for culture war and will to power that Brexit incited in its supporters — Truss was typically a late and fervent convert — when they realized they were wrong. 

All these threads met in Truss in a combustible fashion that has left her — and the Tory Party — in ruins. I think I see hope for our democracy because these are all endings. Truss did not fall: it is worse than that. Rather, and obediently, she shattered. 

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