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LONDON – Britain’s Prime Minister and his Chancellor have been fined for flouting the laws they imposed on the rest of the country during the coronavirus pandemic.
Boris Johnson issued an apology on Tuesday after both he and his chief minister, Rishi Sunak, as part of the Metropolitan Police investigation into a series of lockdown busting parties that took place at the heart of government amid strict COVID curbs were in force, had been fined. Johnson’s wife Carrie has also been told she will face a fine.
It is said to be the first time a sitting prime minister has broken the law. With politics in uncharted waters, it’s by no means clear what’s happening now in the Partygate scandal, but here are some possible scenarios.
1) Nothing is happening…yet
It might be hard to believe, but one of the most likely outcomes is that essentially nothing happens.
Johnson accepted the fine without further ado, apologized and could now hope that the Conservatives’ displeasure with him would fizzle out. Much will depend on how his apology plays with this important constituency.
A Conservative leader can only be challenged if enough of his own MPs vote no confidence in him (more on this below). Earlier this year, a confidence vote seemed a real possibility, as 12 MPs on record had called for Johnson’s resignation.
And yet mood music in Westminster has changed significantly since then – in large part because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. One MP publicly stated last month that he had withdrawn his letter of no confidence because it was not the right time for a leadership contest.
Now, one of Johnson’s most outspoken Tory critics, Roger Gale, has warned that this is not the time to “depose” the Prime Minister, while Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, who previously called for Johnson’s resignation, said the impeachment of the Prime Minister “would destabilize the British government if we must be united in the face of Russian aggression.”
Ministers and cabinet members reacted more quickly and forcefully to news of the fine on Tuesday night than when police first announced they were investigating.
Johnson is further helped by the fact that the UK Parliament is currently on the Easter holidays and can only be dismissed with its consent. That means nervous MPs aren’t around to question him – or plot against him.
That’s not to say there won’t be more moments of danger: a crucial series of local elections, giving voters a chance to bloody the Conservative Party’s nose, and the release of a full report to the parties by senior government official Sue Grey, being held while the police complete their investigation.
There is also a possibility that Johnson could face additional fines, which could test his MPs’ loyalty yet again.
2) Sunak resigns
The decision to penalize Sunak – previously the leading challenger for the top job unless Johnson is stuck – was arguably Tuesday’s biggest surprise.
It follows one of the worst weeks of Sunak’s political career as he faces questions about his family’s tax regime. This, coupled with long-standing political tensions between the Chancellor and Prime Minister, had already fueled speculation that he might decide to quit politics altogether.
An exit would be the nuclear option for Sunak. It would make the Prime Minister look bad in comparison and put more pressure on him to leave as well. It would also likely spell the end of Sunak’s leadership ambitions, as it would imply he doesn’t believe a lawbreaker can become prime minister.
A Conservative MP, who believed Sunak could weather the storm for his family fortune, said news of the fine meant it was “over” for him. Others pointed out that despite his apparent interest in taking over the top job, Sunak has not built a strong following in the parliamentary party and that this will make it even more difficult for him to come back.
However, Sunak doesn’t look like he’s going to charge away. On Tuesday, he offered “an unreserved apology,” saying, “I understand that the rules governing figures in public office must be applied rigorously to maintain public trust.”
3) Johnson resigns
Johnson’s political opponents are clamoring for him to lunge for his sword – but he’s already made it clear he’s going nowhere.
“Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak broke the law and repeatedly lied to the British public. You must both resign,” said Labor Party leader Keir Starmer.
Johnson bucked those calls on Tuesday, telling reporters he was committed to “delivering on the priorities of the British people” and reiterated his determination to ensure “Putin’s failure in Ukraine and the burden on families of higher… energy prices will be reduced”. Expect to hear this argument often.
In truth, one of the most unlikely scenarios is a prime minister’s resignation. Johnson is known for holding onto tight spots.
From the early days of his career, when he was sacked for lying about an extramarital affair, to when it was discovered he had unlawfully shut down Parliament at the height of his Brexit battles with MPs, Johnson has been the subject of political controversy not alien – or a come back.
4) Letters of no confidence are piling up
Despite the Easter break, Conservative MPs could still take action against Johnson – they just need critical mass to get things moving.
It’s arcane stuff, but Tory leadership rules are crucial.
Tory MPs can take action against a leader by writing letters of no confidence (or emails) to the 1922 party committee leader, Graham Brady. When 15 percent of Johnson’s Conservative MPs write to Brady asking for a vote of confidence, the committee’s executive meets to consider whether to call one.
The Conservatives currently have 360 MPs, so that would require 54 letters to come in. This can be done privately – so it’s impossible to know how close we are to a vote.
If a vote does take place, Johnson only needs the support of a simple majority of his own MPs (more than 50 percent) to stay on as leader and prime minister. Then no new vote can be triggered for 12 months, meaning the whole process could prop up his position (at least temporarily).
The initial findings of the Sue Gray report were enough for some MPs to announce they had requested a vote of no confidence – but many opted to keep their powder dry, saying they would support the police investigation or the Gray Wait for report before making a decision.
The fines could potentially lead to a spate of new letters, with a former minister calling the news “quite grim” and saying MPs “would probably act now”.
However, others pointed to the numerous problems in Johnson’s inbox and no apparent successor to the prime minister now that Sunak is also compromised.
5) PM under fire calls on MPs to support him
One avenue open to Johnson is to call a vote of confidence in himself to draw a line under the whole sad episode.
There are two ways he could expose himself, both from former Conservative PMs feeling the heat. John Major’s option is to step down as Tory leader, sparking a leadership contest – effectively asking the party to back him or sack him.
Johnson could also allow a vote of confidence in Parliament, as Theresa May did under extreme pressure over her inability to pass a Brexit deal, despite parliamentary numbers being much more favorable for the current PM than May was after his overwhelming 2019 election victory.
Losing a parliamentary vote of confidence would likely trigger a new general election – and much more drama.
https://www.politico.eu/article/uk-prime-minister-boris-johnson-rishi-sunak-fined-lockdown-breaches-partygate-coronavirus-restrictions-sue-gray/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication What the hell happens now? - POLITICS