Mr. Johnson reacted late to the looming threat of the virus, imposing a lockdown on the country a week after neighboring European countries. That delay, critics argued, made the first wave of the pandemic worse in Britain than elsewhere. In April 2020, with the virus circulating in Downing Street, Mr. Johnson himself contracted Covid, ended up in an intensive care unit and nearly died.
But Mr. Johnson also pushed for Britain to be a pioneer in developing a vaccine. When Oxford University and AstraZeneca produced one, he rolled it out faster than almost any other major country. He also made a fateful decision — one later copied by other leaders — to reopen society after a significant percentage of the population had been vaccinated. Britons, he said, must learn to live with Covid.
It was during the darkest days of the pandemic that the seeds of Mr. Johnson’s current troubles were sown. While the rest of the country was enduring stifling lockdowns, the prime minister and his top aides were taking part in social gatherings at Downing Street that violated their own lockdown restrictions.
The first reports of illicit parties emerged late last November, prompting Mr. Johnson to issue a blanket denial that any laws had been broken. A subsequent police investigation found that was not true: Mr. Johnson himself was fined for attending his own birthday party in violation of the rules.
Allies of Mr. Johnson argue that “Partygate,” as the London tabloids nicknamed it, is a trivial distraction at a time when Europe is confronting its first major land war since World War II. The prime minister swiftly staked out a position as Ukraine’s staunchest defender, shipping powerful weapons to its army and placing regular phone calls to his new friend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
At first, the war eclipsed the scandal, giving Mr. Johnson the chance to wrap himself in a statesman’s mantle. But as the fighting ground on, disenchantment resurfaced at home. The Metropolitan Police levied fines, and an internal investigation by a senior civil servant painted a lurid portrait of partying in the heart of government.
Understand Britain’s ‘Partygate’ Scandal
The taint of moral hypocrisy corroded the prime minister’s popularity with the public. On Friday, when he and his wife Carrie Johnson climbed the steps to St. Paul’s Cathedral for a thanksgiving service in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s 70 years on the throne, he was roundly booed by the crowd. It was an omen.