LONDON -- British Prime Minister Boris Johnson defied calls to resign in a feisty performance Wednesday in Parliament as Conservative Party lawmakers push to oust him over a series of lockdown-flouting government parties.
Johnson apologized to lawmakers last week for attending a "bring your own booze" gathering in May 2020 in the garden of his Downing Street offices. At the time, people in Britain were barred from meeting more than one person outside their household to help curb the spread of covid-19.
The allegations that Johnson and his staff broke restrictions the government imposed on the country have helped the Labor Party open up a double-digit opinion poll lead on the Conservatives, but Johnson doesn't have to face voters until the next general election, scheduled for 2024. His bigger danger is from his own party, which has a history of ousting leaders once they become liabilities.
Conservatives are weighing whether to trigger a no-confidence vote in Johnson amid the public anger over the scandal dubbed "partygate" -- a stunning reversal of fortune for a politician who just over two years ago led the party to its biggest election victory in almost 40 years.
Under Conservative rules, a no-confidence vote in the party's leader can be triggered if 54 party lawmakers write letters to a party official demanding it. So far, only a handful of Conservative members of Parliament have openly called for Johnson to resign, though several dozen are believed to have submitted letters, including some elected as part of a Johnson-led landslide in December 2019.
Conservative lawmaker Andrew Bridgen, who is calling for a change, said he thought the 54-letter threshold would be reached "this week," setting the stage for a confidence vote within days.
If Johnson lost a confidence vote among the party's 359 lawmakers, it would trigger a contest to replace him as Conservative leader. The winner would also become prime minister. If Johnson won the vote, he would be safe from a similar challenge for a year.
Johnson announced Wednesday he was lifting mask mandates and most other coronavirus restrictions in England beginning next week, as he tried to change the subject and brush aside questions about the scandal.
"We delivered while they dithered," he said of opposition politicians.
Senior civil servant Sue Gray is investigating claims that government staff held late-night soirees, boozy parties and "wine time Fridays" while Britain was under coronavirus restrictions in 2020-21.
Johnson said he had considered the party a work gathering that fell within the rules.
But Johnson's apologies -- in which he acknowledged "misjudgments" but not personal rule-breaking -- appear to have weakened, rather than strengthened, his position in the party.
Even lawmakers who back Johnson say he would have to resign if he is found to have lied.
Johnson told lawmakers that Gray's report would be published next week and urged his party to withhold judgment until then. He also held private meetings with Conservative lawmakers Wednesday to shore up his crumbling support.