Johnson’s Cabinet Backs Him After ‘Partygate’ Fine

Johnson’s Cabinet Backs Him After ‘Partygate’ Fine

LONDON — One said that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had “taken responsibility,” another that he had “apologized unreservedly,” while a third appealed to Britons to look at the bigger picture and cut some slack to a politician who was “delivering for Britain.”

By Wednesday nearly every member of Mr. Johnson’s cabinet had defended their boss against demands for his resignation after he was fined by the police for breaching lockdown laws in Downing Street. Only one lawmaker from his Conservative Party gave media interviews calling on him to quit.

While that suggests Mr. Johnson can ride out the immediate storm, the danger is far from over for a prime minister who could face further fines in a swirling scandal called “partygate” over lockdown-busting social events held in Downing Street and other government buildings.

Even if he isn’t fined again, a number of analysts believe the damage is done.

“My view is that this was one of those rare moments where prime ministers see their brand change irrevocably,” said James Johnson, a polling expert who worked in Downing Street for the previous prime minister, Theresa May.

While earlier government crises failed to register with voters, he said, Britons took notice in January at revelations that guests were invited to “bring your own booze” to one Downing Street gathering, and that staffers partied hard there on the eve of the funeral of Prince Philip.

By contrast most people in Britain adhered to strict coronavirus laws that even prevented some from spending time with dying relatives.

“The picture has been pretty entirely consistent over the last four months,” said Mr. Johnson, the polling expert, “still lots of palpable anger about the ‘partygate’ situation, and particularly about the lying and the cover-up after it all came out.”

For many, Tuesday’s decision by London’s Metropolitan Police to fine the prime minister has confirmed that narrative, exposing him not just as a lawbreaker but also as someone who misled Parliament by denying that parties took place.

Lying to lawmakers is considered a resigning issue in Britain though Mr. Johnson’s defense is that he was not deliberately deceptive, and it will be hard to prove he was intentionally not telling the truth in the House of Commons.

More important, the only people with the real power to topple the prime minister are his own Conservative Party lawmakers who could trigger a no-confidence motion. Yet it would require 54 of them to do so and, since the “partygate” scandal erupted in January, the momentum has switched from Mr. Johnson’s critics to his supporters.

Not only has the war in Ukraine distracted from domestic politics, but Mr. Johnson has successfully reinvented himself as Europe’s leading supporter of the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Several Conservative lawmakers who had wanted to oust the prime minister earlier have changed their minds, saying that with an international crisis underway, now is not the time for him to quit.

They include Roger Gale, who on Tuesday wrote on Twitter that “there will be a day of domestic reckoning for the Prime Minister but that time is not now.”

And while there was one resignation from the government in protest of “partygate” on Wednesday it was a junior justice minister in the House of Lords, David Wolfson.

By reputation a lucky politician, Mr. Johnson has also been fortunate in the way the scandal has embroiled the man who until recently was considered his most likely potential successor, the chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak.

Mr. Sunak briefly attended the gathering for which Mr. Johnson was fined: a birthday celebration for the prime minister in Downing Street in 2020 — an event at which one of his allies later claimed to some ridicule that Mr. Johnson had been “in a sense, ambushed with a cake.”

For his attendance, Mr. Sunak was also issued a fine — called a fixed penalty notice. Both he and Mr. Johnson said on Tuesday that they had paid their fines.

That has added to the woes of Mr. Sunak, who was last week engulfed in a furor over his wife’s tax status and his decision to hang on to a U.S. green card — effectively meaning that he was declaring himself a permanent resident of the United States for tax purposes — while serving as chancellor.

Mr. Sunak, whom some analysts think could now be moved from his job in a possible reshuffle, was widely rumored to have considered resigning on Tuesday, but instead issued a statement saying that he had paid the fine and apologized for the breach.

The waning fortunes of Mr. Sunak have underscored for many Conservatives the lack of an obvious successor to the prime minister. Yet the risk is that the “partygate” scandal provides a toxic political backdrop to a looming test of Mr. Johnson’s popularity in local elections next month.

“The police investigation is rumbling along and they have given fixed penalty notices for three of the 12 gatherings they are looking at,” said Adam Wagner, a London-based human rights lawyer and an expert on Covid-related laws.

“I think Boris Johnson will be thinking he is going to be getting at least one more fixed penalty notice and possibly a few,” Mr. Wagner added. What has emerged so far from the police investigation suggests that notices could result from more gatherings, he said.

Even when the police inquiry is complete Mr. Johnson will face more scrutiny because he has promised to publish the full findings of a senior civil servant, Sue Gray, whose preliminary report into Downing Street parties prompted the police to investigate.

Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, believes that the crisis “does not look terminal in the immediate short term” for the prime minister, though he added that “it’s ‘never glad confident morning again’ for Johnson and Sunak,” taking a phrase from the Robert Browning poem, “The Lost Leader.”

Mr. Johnson, the polling expert, thinks that the British public is less likely to overlook the scandal over lockdown parties than Conservative lawmakers seem to believe.

“What the ‘partygate’ situation has done to Boris Johnson, I think, is brand damage that we’ll see lasting and going on,” he said. “Clearly, where Tory members of Parliament are on this is quite distant from where the public are on this,” he added, “and I think that only ends in a reckoning at the next general election.”

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