It’s been said many times in the last three years, but this could be the worst day of Boris Johnson’s political life.
It is now a statement of fact that the Prime Minister broke the law. He is thought to be the first British PM in history to be punished for doing so while in office and – were he to follow protocol – he would now resign from his post.
Downing Street has confirmed that Johnson has been fined by London’s Metropolitan Police as part of their investigation into the so-called Partygate scandal. They said the fine was in relation to a gathering held on June 19, 2020, when Johnson’s team held an impromptu gathering for his birthday at which he was presented with a cake.
Under Covid restrictions in place at the time, indoor gatherings were not allowed, with people permitted only to meet outside in groups of up to six people.
CNN affiliate ITV previously reported that two gatherings were held to celebrate Johnson’s birthday on June 19: One – attended by as many as 30 people – held at the cabinet office in the afternoon, and another that evening hosted at Johnson’s residence and attended by family friends.
Downing Street said on Tuesday that on that date, Johnson had “participated in a gathering of two or more people indoors in the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street.”
Johnson has confirmed this did happen, but previously disputed that it was a gathering. In January, one of Johnson’s key allies claimed that the Prime Minister had been “ambushed with a cake.”
It has been alleged that numerous other parties and gatherings were held in Downing Street and other government buildings at a time when the rest of the country was barred from meeting in groups due to Covid-19 rules set by Johnson’s government. The Prime Minister has been accused of being aware of the gatherings and, in some cases, attending them.
Johnson and his team have repeatedly brushed off all of the allegations leveled at the government. At one point, the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson told journalists that “Covid rules have been followed at all times.”
Johnson apologized on Tuesday evening, saying that while he didn’t think he’d broken any rules at the time, he respects and accepts the police’s decision and has paid the fine. He said he would not resign, despite calls from all major opposition parties that he leave his job immediately.
Speaking to Sky News Johnson insisted “it did not occur to me that this might have been a breach of the rules.” He added that, having settled the fine, he would now “focus on the job in hand.”
Trivial or toxic?
As trivial as a gathering with a birthday cake might sound, the scandal itself has been so toxic that Johnson being fined in relation to it is seriously damaging.
It started on November 30 last year, when the Daily Mirror newspaper reported that social gatherings that could be described as parties were held in Downing Street during December 2020. Johnson denied that any rules were broken.
Shortly after that, a video emerged of his former press secretary joking about a Christmas party in Downing Street. Johnson said he was “sickened myself and furious about that,” but added “I have been repeatedly assured that the rules were not broken.”
Over the months that followed, more allegations emerged of wine parties in the Downing Street garden and Christmas quizzes, some of which Johnson was photographed attending. Downing Street claimed both events were suitably socially distanced.
Arguably the most damaging allegation was that two parties took place in Downing Street the night before the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. When news of the alleged parties broke, an image of Queen Elizabeth mourning her husband while sitting alone at the funeral, due to Covid restrictions, went viral.
An initial report into the Partygate scandal has been published by senior civil servant Sue Gray. The report, which Johnson himself commissioned, referred 12 events to the police for criminal investigation. It said there were “failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times.” Gray will submit her final report at some point in the future, though there is no fixed date.
Local election test
While it might appear that Johnson’s position is now untenable, it is plausible that he will attempt to ride out this crisis.
Firstly, there is some consensus among lawmakers in Johnson’s Conservative party – the people who could remove Johnson from office if he doesn’t resign – that now is not the time to change Prime Minister, given the situation in Ukraine.
Secondly, the UK is due to hold local elections in the coming weeks and most of those lawmakers believe that keeping Johnson in post, though fraught, is a better option than changing leaders at short notice.
Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, it is unclear whether removing Johnson from office is the best option politically for the Conservative party. Despite poor polling since the scandal came to light and enormous public anger aimed directly at the PM, it is far from certain that any other Conservative would appeal to voters more than Johnson, who has defied political gravity for so much of his career.
Rishi Sunak, Johnson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer (the second most powerful job in the British government) has also been fined for attending the same gathering. He was seen by many as a potential candidate to take over from Johnson but has since been bogged down in both the Partygate crisis and allegations about his family’s tax arrangements.
For now, there is little clarity on anything. We only have a few details about exactly what Johnson has been fined for. We don’t know what will be in Gray’s final report, or how much appetite there is for Johnson to resign – either in his own party or among the wider public.
But the longer this crisis rumbles on, the worse it seems to get for Johnson. Even if clinging to power is possible, that doesn’t mean it’s advisable. And in the event that the British public has finally had enough of Johnson, then the longer he delays the inevitable the worse the fall from grace will be – for him and his party.