After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, #Partygate all of a sudden seemed like a decidedly trivial affair. It ceased to be the major issue that it had been for British media during late December and early January. But the topic has now returned explosively to the front pages, following news that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak are to be penalised by police for their mid-lockdown attendance at Downing Street parties.
The particular event for which Johnson has been dealt a fine was his own birthday party, arranged by his then fiancée Carrie Symonds on 19 June 2020, and attended by up to 30 people, including Sunak. At the time, gatherings of more than two people from separate households were forbidden.
The BBC has an excellent breakdown detailing all of the other parties alleged to have occurred in the corridors of power, as well as the laws in force at the time. Many of them are still being investigated.
A No. 10 spokesperson released a statement: “The Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer have today received notification that the Metropolitan Police intend to issue them with fixed penalty notices.” Nowadays, the word ‘unprecedented’ is bandied about with unthinking abandon, but even history buffs will struggle to recall when the two most senior government ministers were last caught on the wrong side of the law. That is because this is the first time in history that a serving prime minister has been punished for breaking it.
Johnson soon issued a public apology in which he made it clear that he accepted the penalty and had paid the full fine. He nevertheless held to the position that any breaches of the regulations were unintentional. By insisting as much, he can stay on the right side of the Ministerial Code, which states that: “Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister” (Section 1.3[c]). Of course, if the offending party is the Prime Minister himself, that resignation note will be tendered to the Queen.
The revelation means that Johnson not only flouted his own draconian laws, but actually did mislead Parliament on the multiple occasions when he insisted before MPs that no rules had been broken. That said, the fact that ministers must “knowingly” lie to Parliament to break the Ministerial Code might let him off the hook. Moreover, the Ministerial Code is not positive law, but a matter of political convention. If an offending minister refuses to resign, it is therefore up to MPs, not police officers, to oust the relevant minister from his post. The Spectator reports that conservative MPs, who hold the balance of power in the House, are supportive enough of Johnson at this point that he is likely to survive the storm.
However, the Metropolitan Police has not ruled out issuing further fines in relation to other parties, many of which remain under investigation. There may be another storm gathering.
Harrison Pitt is a writer for The European Conservative. Based in the UK, he has also been published in The Spectator, Quillette, Spiked-Online, The Critic, and others.