Matthew Flinders, Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Center for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield, on Boris Johnson’s strategy on the Partygate fines.
After dodging the issue for months, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears to have actually flouted his own emergency laws during the Covid restrictions.
The police have Johnson finedhis wife Carrie and – in a new twist of the story – Chancellor Rishi Sunak in relation to the Partygate Affairwhere staff met at government buildings while the rest of the country lived under severe restrictions on movement.
A No 10 spokesman said: “Notification was given to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer today that the Metropolitan Police intend to issue firm orders to them.”
In a video statement released by police shortly after the announcement, Johnson revealed he had already paid the fine, which relates to a gathering on his birthday on June 19, 2020 in the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. He said he didn’t think it was against the rules at the time.
When police first announced an investigation into Partygate a few weeks ago, it really looked like Johnson’s future was at stake. Since then a series of events, not least Russia’s invasion of Ukrainehave diverted the political spotlight from the prime minister’s penchant for partying.
This new scandal is undoubtedly bad news that the Prime Minister could have done without. It is unprecedented that the holders of the two highest offices of state – prime minister and chancellor – are being subjected to penalties imposed by the police.
In this case, the issue is not so much the fines as the principles broken to necessitate the police fines. This tale of birthday cake and Christmas quiz has become a matter of constitution.
Since it was first revealed that government workers were partying during the pandemic’s darkest moments, Johnson has consistently refused to admit the law was broken. In recent weeks, he has been able to cite an ongoing police investigation as a cover for his failure to address questions about the matter. He insisted that it was impossible for him to comment until the official investigation was complete.
However, the announcement that the Prime Minister is among dozens of people to be fined lifts that protective shield. It now seems almost impossible for Johnson to claim no crime was committed. He may well be a politician of remarkable skill, but surely beyond his cunning methods is somehow convincing the public that a police fine is far from a very sure sign of criminal guilt.
Never knowingly caught
At this point, the conventions are written into the Ministerial Code come into the game This document sets out various expectations for the behavior of government ministers in office, including – crucial in this case – the expectation that any minister who knowingly misleads Parliament will be expected to resign.
Several government ministers have flouted this rule over the years, but a prime minister has yet to be ousted.
Attention should be focused almost exclusively on this point in the coming hours and days. The key question is whether on all the occasions where the Prime Minister has previously denied that any rules were broken, has he knowingly misled Parliament.
The Prime Minister has never spoken specifically about the June 19 event in Parliament, but he has told MPs on several occasions that at other key moments no rules were broken – and often in a way that implied no rules were ever broken.
He has, for example, insisted to Parliament that he believes it is one of the most controversial assemblies at Downing Street “work event” — suggesting that when rules were broken, he was an unwitting participant in the breach. When asked about a Christmas party in December 2020, he said “at #10 all instructions were fully followed”.
Both leave the prime minister on difficult terrain. The Metropolitan Police have also not ruled out the imposition of further fines in connection with events on dates other than June 19.
In practice, it is highly unlikely that Johnson will admit to lying. Apologizing has never been his style, and admitting to having treated Parliament with such contempt is almost unthinkable.
Denial and distancing are by far the most likely responses.
The denial will come in the form of confusion as to whether the fines relate to rules, laws or regulations. Expect bluff and bluster until the wind blows from the topic – and maybe one more Surprise trip to Ukraine.
Distancing means trying to blame someone else. Johnson will continue to claim that he did not knowingly mislead the House of Representatives and was merely following the gist of advice he himself received from officials and advisers. If he doesn’t want to take the blame, there are enough other employees who can carry the can under the fines.
Will Partygate be the issue that brings Johnson down? At the end of the day, ousting the Prime Minister would require a large number of Tory backbenchers to rebel and back a no-confidence vote against him. While there is embarrassment and frustration in his party, there doesn’t seem to be an appetite for total surrender. Not yet.
All the noise and shouting aside, the Partygate moment is probably over.
https://www.theweek.co.uk/news/politics/956419/did-boris-johnson-knowingly-mislead-parliament Did Boris Johnson knowingly mislead Parliament?