British police said on Tuesday they had opened an investigation into possible Covid-19 lockdown breaches at Boris Johnson's Downing Street office and residence, the latest blow to a prime minister facing growing calls to resign.
Johnson is fighting for his political life after allegations that he and staff partied at the heart of the British government in breach of rules they had themselves imposed to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
Revelations of revelry including boozy parties in Downing Street, suitcases of supermarket alcohol, a broken children's swing, a wine fridge and jokes by staff about how to present such parties to reporters, have hammered Johnson's ratings.
ITV reported on Monday that Johnson and his now wife Carrie had attended a surprise party of up to 30 people for his birthday in the Cabinet Room at No. 10 Downing Street on June 19, 2020, when indoor gatherings were banned.
Johnson's office described the alleged party as a brief gathering by a group of staff to wish happy birthday to the prime minister, who was there for "less than 10 minutes".
A spokesman said Johnson did not believe he had broken the law over any of the gatherings.
"I welcome the Met's (London Metropolitan Police) decision to conduct its own investigation because I believe this will help to give the public the clarity it needs and help to draw a line under matters," Johnson told parliament.
Met Commissioner Cressida Dick, Britain's top police officer, said an investigation had been opened into a number of events "at Downing Street and Whitehall in the last two years". Police had initially refused to look at the gatherings.
The Cabinet Office said its own investigation, by senior official Sue Gray, was continuing and there was ongoing contact with the police.
Johnson's spokesman said Gray could publish those aspects of her report which did not relate to the police investigation before the Met reported back, but the timing was unclear.
Anyone who is asked to will cooperate fully with the investigation, he said.
FUTURE IN DOUBT?
Reports of the series of gatherings have prompted some of Johnson's 359 Conservative Party lawmakers to call for him to resign, though so far fewer than the 54 required to trigger a confidence vote that could result in a leadership contest.
Some had indicated they would wait for Gray's report, but patience is wearing thin.
"With the police now investigating, this nightmare gets even worse," senior Conservative David Davis, who has already called on Johnson to quit, said on Twitter. "We have to be able to get back to dealing with real threats as quickly as possible."
The police said they had no timeframe for the investigation and government minister Michael Ellis told parliament: "We have no idea how long that (investigation) will be."
"I would urge the house to wait for the findings of (the Cabinet Office) investigation and for the police to conclude their work," he said.
Johnson has survived scandals throughout his career but his premiership, straddling both Britain's departure from the European Union and the worst pandemic for a century, has been defined by turbulence.
His 2019 plan to suspend parliament and force Brexit through was overturned by the Supreme Court before, to the delight of millions who changed their political allegiance to vote for him, he eventually negotiated a divorce deal with the EU.
Months later, when the novel coronavirus struck, he delayed shutting the country down longer than his international peers, a decision that was criticised as Covid-19 deaths rose to over 150,000, the seventh-highest among countries.
Johnson nearly died from the disease himself before recovering to lead a world-leading vaccine rollout.
But reports that he and his staff were flouting the rules they imposed on the British public are testing Johnson's legendary ability to bounce back.
"I'll be honest I always voted for Boris but he's got to go doesn't he? You break the rules, you've got to go," said Ian Dowrich, a 59-year old builder from Brentwood, Essex.
Police chief Dick said police had not typically investigated every alleged lockdown breach but she felt there were grounds to do so now after receiving some findings from Gray's inquiry.
She said police had looked at several factors when deciding whether to investigate any reported COVID rule-breaking, including if "there was evidence that those involved knew or ought to have known that what they were doing was an offence".
Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Angela Rayner welcomed the investigation and renewed calls for Johnson to resign.
"Boris Johnson is a national distraction," she said. Conservative MPs (lawmakers) should stop propping him up and he should finally do the decent thing and resign."