Johnson pays fine and offers ‘unreserved apology’ for party

British prime minister, his wife and chancellor Rishi Sunak fined for Covid-19 breaches

Boris Johnson became the first British prime minister found to have committed a criminal offence while in office, after police fined him for an illegal birthday party held at Downing Street during a Covid-19 lockdown.

Mr Johnson was fined by the Metropolitan Police alongside multiple government figures, including his wife, Carrie, and chancellor Rishi Sunak, for breaching restrictions aimed at slowing the pandemic.

Mr Sunak’s fine followed days of pressure over his family’s tax affairs, prompting talk from colleagues about his political future.

In a Sky News interview, Mr Johnson said he had paid the fine and apologised for the “mistake” he had made.

Mr Sunak offered an “unreserved apology” and said he had accepted and paid a fine. “I deeply regret the frustration and anger caused and I am sorry,” he said in a statement.

The police have investigated 12 different parties so far and are set to issue 50 penalties to an unknown number of individuals. However, they have not finished their investigation, which means additional fines may be issued.

Mr Johnson said the press would be “among the first to know” if he received further fines.

The Met’s investigation came after repeated denials from Mr Johnson that he had committed any offences or been aware of any rule-breaking events during Covid lockdowns.

Asked why he had initially denied the reports of multiple parties, Mr Johnson said 10 Downing Street was a 15,000sq ft building with hundreds of officials. “I couldn’t be everywhere at once,” he said.

Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, urged Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak to quit and called for parliament to be recalled from its Easter break to allow MPs to quiz them. “Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have broken the law and repeatedly lied to the British public,” he said. “They must both resign. The Conservatives are totally unfit to govern. Britain deserves better.”

Lobby Akinnola, spokesman for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group, said it was “unbelievably painful” to know that the prime minister had attended a party and broken the law when people had been unable to be at the side of their loved ones in their dying moments.

“The fact that the prime minister and his chancellor then lied about it, and would have continued to do so if the police hadn’t intervened, is truly shameless,” he said.

The Met began its inquiry in January after a slew of media reports about gatherings that took place throughout Westminster during Covid lockdowns in 2020 and 2021.

The launch of the police probe prompted dozens of Tory MPs to plot openly against Mr Johnson. However, the rebels did not reach the 54 names required under Conservative Party rules to trigger a vote of no confidence.

The new fines have reignited concerns over Mr Johnson’s leadership among Conservative MPs with just weeks to go before local elections.

One former cabinet minister said the situation was “terminal” for Mr Johnson. “It’s now a case of when rather than if he goes, not least because he didn’t tell the truth in the House of Commons, that’s the key point,” he said.

Russian invasion

But other former rebels are now loathe to topple Mr Johnson given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives – who previously called for Mr Johnson’s resignation – said removing the prime minister would be wrong. “It would destabilise the UK government when we need to be united in the face of Russian aggression,” he said.

Another neutral Tory MP said it would be “idiotic” to enter a protracted leadership contest while war crimes were being committed in Ukraine.

Mr Johnson’s fine was for a birthday party held for the prime minister on June 19th in the cabinet room at Downing Street, which was attended by 30 people including the interior designer Lulu Lytle.

Individuals who receive a penalty notice can either pay a fine or challenge it in the courts.

When the scandal first broke in December, the prime minister tried to bluff his way through it, saying “I understand and share the anger” of the public about allegations of parties at Downing Street.

“I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party,” he told the Commons at the time.

Under Britain’s ministerial code, a minister who is found to have misled parliament is expected to resign or be sacked.

As part of the police investigation into the 12 gatherings across Whitehall, more than 100 questionnaires were sent to individuals suspected of organising or attending rule-breaking events.

The Met's probe into "partygate" is running in parallel with an internal Whitehall investigation by Sue Gray, a veteran adjudicator and civil servant.

Her initial findings were published earlier this year, with the full probe due when the Met concludes its inquiries. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022