Legal and Criminal Implications of Boris Johnson’s ‘Partygate’ Scandal
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has recently faced increasing pressure to resign following allegations of lockdown parties held at Downing Street. Johnson has received a fixed-penalty notice (FPN) as part of a police probe into the matter, with the incident in question being a “birthday party” held in the Cabinet room in June 2020. In this article, we explore the legal and criminal consequences of the lockdown parties, and consider whether the Prime Minister may need to resign.
Pressure to Resign:
Lord Garnier, a former Tory MP and solicitor general between 2010 and 2012, has warned of a potential rebellion from Red Wall MPs if the Conservative Party performs poorly during the local elections in May this year. He stated that “you can’t have a prime minister who is in charge of the Government who has been found to have broken the law, who has been fined for breaking the law, continuing in office.” Additionally, MPs will vote on whether to launch a parliamentary inquiry into claims that Mr Johnson misled Parliament over “partygate”.
Different ‘partygate’ events broke different laws, given the rapidly changing nature of Covid restrictions during the pandemic. The Prime Minister’s birthday celebration broke the rule in place at the time banning gatherings of more than two people inside. Meanwhile, the leaving party for two No 10 employees in January 2021 broke the rule banning individuals from meeting people socially with anyone outside of their household.
Fines and Criminal Record:
Fines for breaching Covid lockdown restrictions have ranged from £50 to £10,000, depending on the breach and how long it takes the recipient to pay. No criminal record is associated with a fixed penalty notice, which is an administrative alternative to prosecution. If the fine is left unpaid and the recipient loses their appeal, it can amount to a criminal offence.
The Prime Minister could still face further fines if the Metropolitan Police find that he attended other illegal gatherings. He will then have the option to challenge those fines on an individual basis in court should he see fit. Politically, he could face a challenge to his leadership if Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, starts to receive letters calling for a vote of confidence. If 54 letters are received, a vote would be triggered for when Parliament returns after Easter recess. If Mr Johnson loses, then a leadership election would take place.
Comparison with Other Prime Ministers:
Boris Johnson is the first known Prime Minister to have broken the law while in office and the first to receive a fixed penalty notice. When Sir Tony Blair was in No 10, he was questioned by police over cash-for-honours allegations, but not under caution.
Calls for Resignation:
Many politicians, including Sir Keir Starmer, Nicola Sturgeon, Sadiq Khan, and Mark Harper, have called for Boris Johnson to resign. Sir Keir stated that “Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have broken the law and repeatedly lied to the British public. They must both resign. The Conservatives are totally unfit to govern. Britain deserves better.” Similarly, Nicola Sturgeon tweeted, “Boris Johnson must resign. He broke the law and repeatedly lied to Parliament about it.”