Police fine UK’s Boris Johnson for pandemic party

London police fined British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday for celebrating his birthday party at government offices in violation of COVID-19 measures. The announcement set off a storm of condemnation, but the prime minister says he won’t resign.

Frank Augstein/AP
A protester holds up a sign showing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in front of the entrance to Downing Street in London, April 13, 2022. Mr. Johnson was fined for breaching COVID-19 regulations by attending a birthday party held in government offices in June 2020.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has refused to resign after being fined for breaking his government’s pandemic lockdown rules, saying he would instead redouble efforts to strengthen the economy and combat Russian aggression in Ukraine.

London police fined Mr. Johnson and other people Tuesday for attending a birthday party thrown for the prime minister at his Downing Street offices on June 19, 2020. The penalty made Mr. Johnson the first British prime minister ever found to have broken the law while in office.

Gatherings of more than two people were banned in Britain at the time of the birthday party to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“I understand the anger that many will feel that I, myself, fell short when it came to observing the very rules which the government I lead had introduced to protect the public, and I accept in all sincerity that people had the right to expect better,” Mr. Johnson said late Tuesday. “And now I feel an even greater sense of obligation to deliver on the priorities of the British people.”

The fine followed a police investigation and months of questions about lockdown-breaking parties at government offices, which Mr. Johnson had tried to bat away by saying there were no parties and that he believed no rules were broken.

Opposition lawmakers demanded Mr. Johnson’s resignation, arguing the fines given to him and Treasury chief Rishi Sunak were evidence of “criminality” at the heart of government. The opposition argued that the Downing Street gathering demonstrated that Mr. Johnson and his supporters believe the rules don’t apply to them.

Speaking in the North of England on Tuesday, opposition leader Keir Starmer repeated his previous calls for Mr. Johnson and Mr. Sunak’s ouster. 

“My thoughts are with all of those who did the right thing and for whom this is a real slap in the face. They made the most unimaginable, heart-wrenching sacrifices,” the Labour Party leader said. “The guilty men are the prime minister and the chancellor. They dishonored all of that sacrifice; they’ve dishonored their office.”

While the “partygate” scandal poses a threat to Mr. Johnson’s government, the world has changed tremendously since the first reports of the parties surfaced late last year.

Mr. Johnson has been a leading figure in marshaling international opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Britain is facing its worst cost-of-living crisis since the 1950s.

His supporters are already arguing that whatever the prime minister may have done wrong, now is not time for a leadership contest.

That his Treasury chief also received a fine may help Mr. Johnson since Mr. Sunak had been seen as the leading candidate to succeed Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Sunak, a former banker who became chancellor on the eve of the pandemic, took seven hours to release a statement in which he apologized, prompting a report in the Times newspaper that he had considered quitting.

But Mr. Johnson still faces the possibility of additional fines; he is reported to have attended three other gatherings that the Metropolitan Police Service is still investigating.

He will also have to answer questions about whether he knowingly misled Parliament with his previous statements about the parties, Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government in London, said.

“Governments have to realize that they can’t just make laws and then skirt around them and rationalize themselves that it’s all OK because they’re very important people working at the center of government,” Ms. Rutter said.

The party allegations had already threatened Mr. Johnson’s position earlier this year when a number of lawmakers in his own Conservative Party called for him to quit as public trust plummeted and support for the government shrank.

The Ukraine war dampened that initial outcry, but it could re-emerge following the news of the fine as many lawmakers had said they would reserve judgment until the outcome of the police investigation.

A leadership challenge can be triggered if 15% of Conservative members of parliament write letters demanding a confidence vote to the chairman of the party’s “1922 Committee,” which represents lawmakers who have no government jobs.

The Conservatives have 360 MPs, so 54 would need to write such letters for a confidence vote to be called.

Several Conservative lawmakers have been outspoken in their unhappiness with Mr. Johnson and a handful have said publicly they have submitted letters. Others have said they have done so on condition of anonymity. Some had withdrawn them since the invasion of Ukraine.

The letters are confidential, so the 1922 Committee chairman is the only person who knows how many have actually done so.

If a confidence vote is called, all Conservative MPs could vote for or against their leader. If Mr. Johnson wins he remains in office and cannot be challenged again for 12 months. If he loses, he must resign and is barred from standing in the leadership election that follows.

One lawmaker in Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party said on Wednesday that the prime minister should go. 

“I don’t think the PM can survive or should survive breaking the rules he put in place,” Nigel Mills told the BBC.

“He’s been fined, I don’t think his position is tenable.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Material from Reuters was used in this report. 

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