The fact that the prime minister and the chancellor have both been issued with fixed penalty notices (FPNs) for attending illegal gatherings during Covid lockdowns has brought partygate back to the top of the news agenda. But while Conservative MPs are less critical of Johnson than earlier in the year, the partygate saga is not yet over.
The Johnsons and Rishi Sunak were fined for their attendance at a seemingly impromptu birthday celebration in the Cabinet Room in June 2020. The fact that the police have judged that this broke the rules suggests that they are taking a particularly hard line. The Met has already made clear that there may be more FPNs to come, as it investigates the rest of the events in Downing Street and Whitehall.
These may include further fines for the Johnsons, Sunak and advisers and officials in Downing Street – until the police finish their investigation, we will not know. For some people – particularly junior officials – we will never know if they have been fined. The scandal is likely to continue rolling for some time.
The prime minister’s answers in parliament were ambiguous – he must now correct the record. When news of the parties in Downing Street and elsewhere in government broke, the prime minister was at pains to make clear he did not believe he had broken any rules. In repeated statements to the Commons, he told MPs that he had been “assured” that all rules had been followed. This matters because knowingly misleading parliament is the only breach of the ministerial code where the code explicitly sets out that resignation is expected (though of course ministers have resigned for lesser breaches in the part). If Johnson (or Sunak) knew that he had attended an event that was illegal, he would be expected to resign (although there is no mechanism to require him to do so).
Opposition parties have already called for the prime minister’s resignation, but the question of whether he misled parliament is not straightforward. The careful wording of his statements suggests that they were designed to allow him to argue that he has not done so, even if, as transpired, the events did turn out to breach the rules. Now that we know that he broke the rules, he should correct the record in parliament, setting out clearly what happened and apologise for not being clear beforehand. Parliament needs to show that it can hold Johnson to account, even if Conservative MPs do not want him to resign.
Once the Met finishes its investigation, Sue Gray will presumably be permitted to publish her full report, which will provide fuller details of what happened in Downing Street and who was involved in which events. Her initial update found a ‘failure of leadership’ in No.10 – the prime minister has set out some changes to Downing Street but it is not yet clear whether those have been enough to avoid repeats of such failures in the future. If Johnson continues to blame the advice he received, rather than take responsibility for his own actions, questions will remain about his leadership.
Gray’s full report is unlikely to be published until after the local elections on 5 May, although there have been reports it could come sooner. Several Conservative MPs have said they are waiting for the report to be published before making a judgement about whether or not the prime minister still has their confidence as leader of the party.
And this is the fundamental point: through all of the bluster and speculation about what partygate means for the prime minister, there is only one small group of people who have the power to decide what it means. The reaction of Conservative MPs – informed by the views of their constituents and potentially by the local election results in May – is what will decide whether these fines affect Johnson’s future. Throughout all of the scandals of the last year, they have always had the power to remove their confidence in Johnson’s leadership; their revealed preference has always been to not do so. From the reaction so far, it seems likely that they will choose the same approach this time. The consequences of that decision are their responsibility.