Last December Boris Johnson told the House of Commons “I certainly broke no rules” following media reports about Downing Street parties held during coronavirus lockdowns. A few days later chancellor Rishi Sunak told MPs: “I did not attend any parties.”
Yet on Tuesday the two most senior members of the UK government were told they would be fined for breaking Covid-19 laws in the partygate scandal, prompting calls from opposition parties for their immediate resignations.
The Metropolitan Police’s decision to issue fines to Johnson and Sunak for attending a surprise birthday party for the prime minister in 10 Downing Street in June 2020 should in theory pose a big threat to both of them.
In normal times, a prime minister and chancellor breaking the law would mean curtains for their political careers. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shifted Tory MPs’ political calculations and may provide some immediate respite.
Johnson and Sunak’s past statements in the Commons suggest they have misled parliament, moves that would put them in breach of the ministerial code and typically force their resignations.
But allies of Johnson and Sunak were eager to highlight the difference between knowingly and inadvertently misleading MPs: the latter is normally not deemed a resigning matter.
Nevertheless, calls for Johnson to quit were not confined to Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Baroness Ruth Davidson, former leader of the Scottish Tories, said Johnson had “broke the rules he imposed on the country and lost the moral authority to lead. He should go”.
In private, several Conservative MPs expressed deep unhappiness about the fines against Johnson and Sunak, but declined to speak out until the public mood was clearer.
One Conservative aide said Johnson’s future would not become apparent for “at least 24 hours” as MPs tried to gauge the political temperature.
Prior to Tuesday, Johnson’s team insisted he would not be fined, believing his defence that the Whitehall gatherings he attended were work events would persuade the Met not to issue him with a fixed penalty notice.
The police decision to propose a penalty for Johnson’s surprise birthday party sets a low threshold for future fines. The prime minister is known to have attended several other Whitehall parties under investigation by the Met — including a “bring your own booze” event in the Downing Street garden in May 2020 — and his allies are braced for more fines.
But Johnson’s high-profile role in the Ukraine war — the UK has been one of the west’s leading suppliers of arms to President Volodymyr Zelensky — has given rebellious Tories pause for thought about whether this is the right moment to push for a party leadership contest.
One cabinet minister said: “When any fine lands, Boris will be telling MPs he’s picking up the phone to his good friend Volodymyr Zelensky, reminding them that there are more important, pressing issues to hand.”
An influential Tory MP who has agitated against Johnson said: “It is almost helpful for him that this is happening during the Ukraine war. I don’t necessarily believe the idea that you can’t change a leader during a war . . . but it is an uncomfortable time and the Conservative party is currently too confused to move against Boris.”
Members of Johnson’s inner circle said he had no intention of resigning. One cabinet ally said: “He’s not going anywhere, his fingernails have been dug into the Downing Street window frames and he would be taken away kicking and screaming.”
Johnson’s immediate future will be contingent on whether 54 Tory MPs submit letters demanding a vote of no confidence in him — the threshold to trigger such a ballot.
Senior members of the government warned it would be wrong to think Johnson was in the clear. “If everyone thinks he has got away with it and it is all OK now, I don’t think that is the case,” said one minister. “Sooner or later something is going to get him. This has done irreparable damage.”
Johnson’s allies were nervously waiting on Tuesday evening to see whether Sunak would quit over his fine, but the chancellor opted instead to offer an “unreserved apology”. Senior Tories said the chancellor’s political prospects had been severely damaged by his fixed penalty notice, coming hard on the heels of criticism over his wife’s UK tax perks due to her non domiciled status.
One of Sunak’s colleagues said his ambitions to ultimately succeed Johnson as Conservative leader had been significantly diminished. “Rishi is having a very bad week,” he added. One senior Tory MP said: “This is probably it for Rishi.”
Sunak received conflicting advice from supportive Conservative MPs. Some urged him not to quit, warning that his epitaph risked being “a law-breaking, tax-dodging chancellor”. But other MPs suggested that he should consider his position to make “a moral stand, to show that ministers who break the law should not be in the office”.
The big risk for the Tory party is that it has entered into an ethical and moral death spiral similar to the late 1990s when Sir John Major’s troubled government faced a barrage of negative stories about its conduct.
With the cost of living crisis escalating and difficult local elections looming on May 5, one former cabinet minister said matters would not improve for Johnson.
“Everyone is always waiting for someone else to do in Boris for them — meanwhile he just stays on the horse . . . the polls don’t show he’s got that much credit from Ukraine, and price rises are coming,” added the MP.