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UK PM Johnson and finance minister face calls to quit over 'partygate' fines

UK PM Johnson and finance minister face calls to quit over 'partygate' fines
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street, in London, Britain, on Feb 24, 2022.
PHOTO: Reuters

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his finance minister Rishi Sunak faced calls to resign on Tuesday (April 12), as they face fines for breaking Britain’s strict coronavirus lockdown rules.

Police have been investigating 12 gatherings at Johnson’s Downing Street office and the Cabinet Office after a damning internal inquiry found his staff had enjoyed alcohol-fuelled parties that were not permitted.

Johnson said he had attended some of the events, held when social mixing was all but banned by laws his government brought in to curb the spread of Covid-19, but he has always denied knowingly committing any wrongdoing.

The prime minister said on Tuesday that he accepted the fine and he understood public anger over the issue, but he had not believed he was in breach of the law at the time.

“I have to say, in all frankness, at that time it did not occur to me that this might have been a breach of the rules. But of course, the police have found otherwise and I fully respect the outcome of their investigation,” Johnson told the BBC.

The fine, one of more than 50 police said they would issue as part of their inquiries, related to a gathering to celebrate the prime minister’s birthday in the Cabinet Room of Downing Street on June 19, 2020.

A spokesperson for Johnson’s wife, Carrie, said she would also be fined.

Johnson swept to power in 2019 on a promise to complete Britain’s exit from the European Union, but his premiership has suffered a series of controversies and missteps in the last six months.

Revelations about boozy Downing Street parties provoked calls earlier this year from lawmakers in his own Conservative Party for his resignation, as public trust plummeted over the “partygate” affair.

However, the pressure abated with the outbreak of war in Ukraine in which he has sought to play a leading role in the West’s response.

Some of the gatherings took place when people could not attend funerals or say farewell to loved ones dying in hospital because they were following rules set by Johnson’s government.

After the events were first reported in late 2021, Johnson said there were no parties and that all rules were followed.


He later apologised to parliament for attending one event, which he said he thought was work-related.

He also apologised to Queen Elizabeth for another at which staff partied on the eve of her husband’s funeral.

In June 2020, when Johnson’s birthday party took place, people from different households were not allowed to meet indoors and were asked to maintain a two-metre distance from each other while hospitality venues were shut.

A week earlier, Johnson told the nation: “I urge everyone to continue to show restraint and respect the rules which are designed to keep us all safe.”

The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK group said it was “still unbelievably painful” that the prime minister had broken his own rules when they were unable to be with loved ones as they died.

“The fact that @BorisJohnson and @RishiSunak then lied about it, and would have continued to do so if the police hadn’t intervened, is truly shameless,” the group said on Twitter.

“There is simply no way either the prime minister or chancellor can continue.”

There were also widespread demands from opposition parties for Johnson and Sunak to quit, saying they had misled parliament about their actions.

However, the prime minister’s immediate future will be determined by Conservative lawmakers, who can trigger a leadership challenge if 54 of the party’s 360 parliamentary members demand a confidence vote.

Some of those who have previously called for his head said now was not the time.

“In the middle of war in Europe, when Vladimir Putin is committing war crimes and the UK is Ukraine’s biggest ally, as President [Volodymyr] Zelensky said at the weekend, it wouldn’t be right to remove the prime minister at this time,” said Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservative Party.

But others warned Johnson’s long-term position was far from secure. “This not the end of this matter,” Conservative lawmaker Andrew Bridgen said.

Johnson’s fine is thought to be a unique for a British leader in 300 years. “As far as we are aware there is no precedent for a prime minister being found to have broken the law,” said the House of Commons Library, a research service based at parliament.

In Johnson’s favour is the lack of an obvious candidate to replace him, though news of the fines cap a terrible week for Sunak who had been considered a leading contender.

The chancellor was already facing serious questions about his family’s finances and wealth just as large tax rises for the public took effect.

His wife Akshata Murty, who owns about 0.9 per cent of Indian IT giant Infosys, confirmed that she had non-domiciled tax status, meaning she did not pay tax on earnings from outside Britain. She said on Friday she would pay British tax on foreign income after days of criticism.

Sunak has also been under fire over the disclosure that he only gave up a US “green card” – an immigration status intended for permanent US residents – after he became finance minister in 2020.

On Sunday, he asked for his ministerial declarations to be examined by the independent adviser on ministers’ interests to determine whether he had stuck to the rules.

Last month, Sunak was criticised for not doing enough to help Britons facing the biggest cost-of-living squeeze since records began in 1956.

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