But Mr Johnson brushed off calls to resign over the “Partygate” scandal and vowed to reform the way his office is run, insisting he and his government could be trusted.
“I understand it and I will fix it,” he said in Parliament on Monday (Tuesday morning AEDT) after senior civil servant Sue Gray released interim results on several assemblies in 2020 and 2021 while Britain was under government-imposed restrictions to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Ms Gray noted that “faults in leadership and judgment” enabled events that “should not have happened”.
“The hardship under which citizens across the country worked, lived, and sadly even died while rigorously following government regulations and policies is all too well known,” Ms. Gray wrote.
“In the context of the pandemic, when the government has asked citizens to accept sweeping restrictions on their lives, some of the behavior surrounding these gatherings is difficult to justify,” she added.
Ms Gray’s insight into 10 Downing Street marked by excessive drinking and staff afraid to speak out about workplace issues comes as a blow to Mr Johnson, although Ms Gray’s conclusions only focused on four of the 16 she examined relate events.
Her findings on 12 others were withheld at the request of police, who last week launched a criminal investigation into the most serious alleged breaches of coronavirus rules. The Metropolitan Police Force said it had asked for cuts to be made to Ms Gray’s report “to avoid any interference with our investigation”.
The force said Monday they would interview party attendees and view more than 300 photos and over 500 pages of documents they received from Ms Gray’s team.
Events police are investigating include a birthday party for Johnson at Downing Street in June 2020 and two gatherings on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral in April 2021 – a funeral at which the dowager Queen Elizabeth II was left to sit alone .
The cuts to Ms Gray’s report have prompted opponents to accuse Mr Johnson of whitewashing.
Allegations that the prime minister and his staff flouted restrictions imposed on the country to stem the spread of the coronavirus – holding “bring your own boze” office parties, birthday celebrations and “wine time Fridays” – have sparked public anger, led Some Conservative lawmakers called for Mr Johnson to step down, sparking fierce internal fighting within the ruling party.
Opposition Labor leader Keir Starmer said the British public had made “heartbreaking sacrifices” and suffered “collective trauma” during the pandemic.
“The prime minister thought we were all fools,” he said. “He despised human sacrifice. He was unfit for office.”
Mr Starmer said many Britons “think the Prime Minister should do the right thing and resign. Of course he won’t do that. Because he is a man without shame.”
Mr Johnson can ignore criticism from the opposition because the Conservatives have a large majority in Parliament. His fate depends on how conservative lawmakers react to his apology. Some previously said they would push for a vote of no confidence if Ms Gray finds Mr Johnson has made serious mistakes or misled Parliament with his previous insistence that no rules were broken.
Mr Johnson urged his critics to await the conclusions of the police investigation.
But a Conservative MP, Andrew Mitchell, said in the House of Commons that Johnson “no longer has my support”.
Another, Aaron Bell, recalled attending his grandmother’s small, socially distanced funeral in May 2020 and asked: “Does the Prime Minister think I’m a fool?”
Former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May said that either Mr Johnson and those around him “didn’t read the rules or didn’t understand what they meant. … Or they didn’t believe the rules applied to them. Which was it?
Mr Gray did not criticize the Prime Minister directly, but said: “There are significant lessons to be learned from these events that need to be addressed immediately across government.”
The government has not promised to release Ms Gray’s full findings once the police investigation is complete, only saying it will take this into account.
Mr Johnson could be questioned by detectives as part of their inquiry and potentially face a fine if found to have broken the law.
Mr Johnson, meanwhile, tried to change the subject from his personal concerns and on Monday marked the second anniversary of Brexit by announcing economic opportunities outside the European Union.
On January 31, 2020, Great Britain officially left the now 27-nation bloc, but remained part of the economic structure of the EU for another 11 months.
Since then, trade between Britain and the EU has declined, although the turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic has masked the economic woes caused by the end of smooth trade with Britain’s biggest economic partner.
Johnson vowed on Monday to unlock the potential of Brexit, unveiling a “Brexit Freedoms” bill that the government says will cut red tape for British companies by amending laws dating back to Britain’s years as an EU member were accepted.
Johnson also plans a diplomatic push to try to ease tensions between Russia and Ukraine. He is expected to later have a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin and visit Ukraine on Tuesday to discourage Russia from invading its neighbor.
Some political observers said Ms Gray’s paraphrased and partial report could give Mr Johnson at least temporary respite from calls for his ouster.
“It’s a mess,” said Will Walden, a former Johnson adviser. “It’s probably bad for democracy but inadvertently good for the PM.”