LONDON — After police investigating a series of boozy bashes at 10 Downing Street announced Tuesday that they were issuing another 30 fines for pandemic lockdown violations, Prime Minister Boris Johnson conceded he was one of the guilty ones. He offered his apology, said he didn’t think he was breaking any rules and indicated he wasn’t going to quit.
The scandal is far from over, though.
Johnson is the first sitting British prime minister found to have broken the law. His critics on Tuesday were already calling on him to resign. Ultimately, his political future may depend more on the judgment of Parliament than the assessment of the police.
The prime minister was fined for breaking rules his own government mandated by attending a gathering of “two people or more indoors” in the Cabinet Room at Downing Street on June 19, 2020.
That was a birthday party — attended by about 30 people, with singing and cake — reportedly organized by the prime minister’s wife, Carrie Johnson, as a surprise for her husband.
Carrie Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who serves as treasury secretary, were also among those cited by police on Tuesday as part of the criminal investigation into a dozen government parties during the pandemic.
In a prepared statement to broadcasters in the early evening, Johnson said he paid his fine and “I once again offer a full apology.”
By his account, during a day otherwise packed with covid meetings and a school visit, he attended “a brief gathering … lasting for less than 10 minutes during which people I work with kindly passed on their good wishes.”
“I have to say in all frankness at that time it did not occur to me that this might have been a breach of the rules,” he said. “But of course the police have found otherwise and I fully respect the outcome of their investigation.”
The prime minister added: “I understand the anger that many will feel that I myself fell short when it came to observing the very rules that the government I lead had introduced to protect the public and I accept in all sincerity that people had the right to expect better.”
Carrie Johnson and Sunak said they, too, paid their fines.
Carrie Johnson’s spokeswoman said that while the prime minister’s wife believed she was “acting in accordance with the rules at the time, Mrs. Johnson accepts the Metropolitan Police’s findings and apologizes unreservedly.”
Sunak said in a statement: “I understand that for figures in public office, the rules must be applied stringently in order to maintain public confidence.”
London’s Metropolitan Police said Tuesday they have now issued 50 fines in their investigation of lockdown bashes attended by government staffers at the prime minister’s office and residence and the nearby Cabinet Office.
The police have not named who else has been fined, what parties they attended, or even if the 50 fines have gone to 50 different people. But as the investigation is ongoing, more fines for more attendees for more gatherings are possible — including for Johnson.
Police are looking into 12 gatherings, including ones that involved quiz games, wine and cheese celebrations, “BYOB” invitations — and alcohol that was brought in via wheeled luggage.
Those set to be fined are first sent a “fixed penalty notice.” They can then simply pay the amount, believed to be 100 pounds ($130) — half if paid promptly. Or they have 28 days to contest the penalties, in which case the proceedings could include more police investigation — and even a trip to a courtroom.
While the fines may be small, the political costs for Johnson and his government could be considerable.
Now, Johnson is associated with criminal behavior. Having birthday cake with colleagues may be a relatively minor offense, as criminal activities go. But both the investigations and public anger have focused on the context: The parties took place when strict pandemic restrictions were in effect, when families were denied visits to loved ones in hospitals and the number of attendees at funerals was limited.
Johnson’s critics will hammer away that the prime minister is a hypocrite, a dissembler, even a liar, who cannot be trusted.
Nicola Sturgeon, leader of Scotland, said Tuesday that both Johnson and Sunak should resign. So did Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, who said “it’s obvious there was widespread criminality” at 10 Downing Street, where Johnson lives and works.
Meanwhile, Ed Davey, the head of the Liberal Democrats, called for Parliament to come back into session to debate a motion of no confidence in the prime minister.
Johnson’s supporters have been saying it is time to move on, so Johnson and his government can devote their full attention to the war in Ukraine, skyrocketing energy prices and post-Brexit trade deals.
In the hours after the fines were announced Tuesday, the prime minister’s press office highlighted Johnson’s role as a wartime leader, offering reporters a readout of a call with President Biden. Johnson tweeted an image of himself with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv over the weekend.
But support for the prime minister could now wane within his party, if his fellow Tories feel like he has made fools of them.
Johnson’s fate lies in the hands of fellow Conservative Party lawmakers, who can trigger a leadership challenge if 54 Conservative members of Parliament submit letters of no confidence.
Steven Fielding, a political historian at the University of Nottingham, said Johnson being penalized for breaking the law was “shocking but not shocking.”
“In the great scheme of things it’s a great shock and scandal that the prime minister of the United Kingdom has been found to have broken his own laws and lied about it.”
On the other hand, Fielding said, “we knew before Boris Johnson became prime minister that he lies, he tells mistruths to people to get to where he wants to be. This has been a long time coming and we expected it.”
Johnson has long had a loose relationship with the truth. He was fired from a job as a journalist at the Times of London for making up a quote. He also once lost a post in the leadership of the Conservative Party after he admitted he lied about a romantic affair.
In this case, analysts said attention will turn to the question of whether Johnson broke the “Ministerial Code,” or the code of conduct that British politicians are supposed to follow, by deliberately misleading Parliament when he said that “the guidance and the rules” around parties at Downing Street “were followed at all times.”
If he did break the code, then by convention he should resign.
The person in charge of enforcing that code is the British prime minister.
In late 2020, Johnson’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel, was found to have broken the code after an investigation into accusations of bullying. Johnson took no further action and she is still in the role.
Some commentators have questioned whether, given the war in Ukraine, now is the right time for the U.K. to change its leaders. Others point out that Britain did change prime ministers during World War I and World War II.
When the Partygate scandal first broke and calls went out for Johnson to resign, many Conservatives speculated that Sunak might make a good replacement.
Sunak serves as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in charge of the nation’s finances and budgets. It is one of the “Great Offices of State.” And Sunak has been broadly popular.
But even before news of the fines, his political aspirations had taken a hit.
The British press revealed last week that his wife, Akshata Murty, had not been paying British taxes on her overseas earnings.
Murty is a billionaire who owns millions in shares of Indian technology giant Infosys, which was founded by her father. Murty claimed “non-domicile” status in British tax filings, even though she lives with her husband in Britain. Her tax position is one that many dual nationals deploy. It is legal, but the optics are terrible.
Until the moving vans arrived over the weekend, Murty, Sunak and their family all lived in the chancellor’s residence at Downing Street.