Johnson fined for lockdown flouting ‘birthday celebration’
Boris Johnson has become the first serving UK Prime Minister to be sanctioned for breaking the law after being issued with a fixed penalty notice (FPN) by the police for breaching COVID lockdown rules at an event in No 10 celebrating his birthday in June 2020. His wife Carrie Johnson, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and a number of No 10 officials also received fines.
Johnson has apologised, but his statement last night shows he still does not believe he did anything wrong. Ultimately, the scandal has been so politically toxic due to the perception that Johnson and his team held a number of parties in breach of the pandemic restrictions they themselves had set, at a time when ordinary people were not able to see their loved ones or in some cases even attend their funerals. Moreover, once details had started to emerge, Johnson repeatedly denied any such events had taken place.
Rearguard action and lack of obvious successor means his position is safe for now
Had the news emerged a few weeks ago at the height of Partygate, it is highly likely a leadership contest would have been triggered. However, the landscape has since changed with Johnson and his team managing to shore up their position. The conflict in Ukraine and the UK’s strong response has changed the political dynamics in Westminster, while Sunak, seen by many as Johnson’s most obvious successor, has been damaged by a string of revelations about his and his wife’s tax and residency affairs.
Despite a snap YouGov poll finding a majority of the public thinks he should resign (by a margin of 57% to 30%) and that he knowingly lied about breaking the rules (by a margin of 75% to 12%), the political momentum to force him out has dissipated. A number of Cabinet Ministers and backbench MPs have publicly come out in support of the Prime Minister, as have key centre-right newspapers, with the window of opportunity to get him out seemingly having been and gone.
Misleading Parliament is traditionally seen as a resigning matter, but Johnson has repeatedly demonstrated he does not bow to tradition or convention, and in the absence of a clear viable alternative, he will cling on. The war in Ukraine is ultimately an excuse, the UK has swapped Prime Ministers during times of war before, it is not a direct participant in the conflict itself, and the UK’s current stance is broadly supported across the political spectrum. While a declared challenger is not necessary to trigger a leadership ballot, most Tory MPs will be thinking ahead, and for the time being, appear to have settled on a ‘better the devil you know’ approach.
Cost-of-living and public sentiment – the two longer-term threats to his position
The cost-of-living crisis
The UK is facing huge hikes in the cost of essentials like food and energy - last month inflation came in at 7%, a 30-year high. At the same time, a new levy has been introduced to help the National Health Service recover from the pandemic, putting the UK tax burden at its highest level since the 1950s. This issue will dominate the political agenda and if Johnson cannot get a grip on this situation, dissent within his ranks will grow.
Ironically, the poor reception to Sunak’s spring statement last month – widely criticised as inadequate – has bolstered Johnson’s own position in the short term. In the longer term however, having an unpopular economic policy at a time 2 when ordinary people are seeing their standard of living eroded – pushing many people who previously were just about managing to the brink – is clearly unsustainable.
The Conservatives’ polling position
Johnson has bought himself some breathing space in Westminster, but his MPs will be keeping a nervous eye on the polls which now consistently have the opposition Labour party in the lead. Johnson’s own approval rating with YouGov is -33, having been as low as -51 during the height of Partygate.
Yesterday’s fine related to a single event, with the police still investigating several others. Some of these were reportedly a lot more raucous than the No 10 ‘birthday party’, so Johnson could well end up with further fines. At some point, the full internal report on Partygate compiled by senior official Sue Gray – the basis on which the police launched their investigation – will also be published and is likely to contain a number of explosive details.
The Conservatives are set for a bruising set of local elections next month and they could also be facing a couple of parliamentary by-elections as a result of Conservative MPs having to step down following criminal behaviour – once again reinforcing the perception of unaccountable political elites breaking the rules. Electoral setbacks will be interpreted as a sign that the Prime Minister’s brand is permanently toxified and make other MPs with small majorities increasingly jittery as the 2024 general election approaches. The relationship between Johnson and the Conservative Party was always one of mutual convenience and if the Government’s ratings do not recover against the backdrop of the cost-of-living crisis, the pressure on him to step down and let someone else try to turn things around will grow.
Even then, a leadership challenge is not guaranteed to succeed. However, the constant infighting and speculation could paralyse the Government’s ability to pass meaningful policy changes and further fuel public discontent and a desire for change after 12 years and counting of Conservative rule.