Partygate is back in the news as Downing Street braces itself for a bumpy few weeks. This morning, Scotland Yard has announced that twenty fixed penalty notices will be issued for breaches of Covid rules in No. 10 as part of the first stage of the findings of the Metropolitan Police investigation:
The investigation into allegations of breaches of Covid-19 regulations in Whitehall and Downing Street has now progressed to the point where the first referrals for fixed penalty notices (FPN) will be made to ACRO Criminal Records Office.
We will today initially begin to refer 20 fixed penalty notices to be issued for breaches of Covid-19 regulations. The ACRO Criminal Records Office will then be responsible for issuing the FPNs to the individual following the referrals from the MPS.
The investigation continues and more fines could be issued as the police continue to go over evidence. So, how does this play out?
The only commitment Downing Street has given when it comes to fines is that if the Prime Minister receives one it will be made public. This means that while the Metropolitan Police says 20 fines were issued in the first batch, it remains unclear who exactly they have gone to. This could remain the case for some time: unless those who have received them come out publicly, the information is leaked or it becomes available on public record, the details will remain under wraps.
The hope in No. 10 is still that Johnson could avoid a fine on the grounds that No. 10 is his home as well as his workplace. Even if Johnson avoids a fine, however, there would still be two tricky moments for the Prime Minister. First, will MPs conclude that he misled Parliament when he told the Commons in December that: ‘All guidance was followed completely in No 10’.
A minister who has misled Parliament is usually expected to resign (something Boris Johnson has made clear he will not do – though his colleagues could have other ideas). Second, Sue Gray has said she will publish her full report once the police investigation has finished. This could make for very uncomfortable reading for all concerned and push the issue back up the news agenda.
But is partygate still an issue with the power to oust Johnson from No. 10? Or has the Ukraine crisis meant that MPs feel they have more important things to focus on right now? The hope in 10 Downing Street is that the world has changed substantially in the past month and discussions about cake ambushes feel particularly trivial. Notably, the Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross who had called for Johnson to go has withdrawn his letter of no confidence citing the situation in Ukraine. Had it not been for Ukraine, aides would be braced for a rush of no confidence letters this week from MPs. Instead the working assumption is that most MPs will keep their powder dry for the time being. That calculation could, of course, change if Johnson receives a fine.
It’s certainly true that a lot of the heat has been taken out of partygate in recent weeks. But critics of Johnson remain unconvinced he should lead them into the next election, even if they accept that no confidence vote should happen while the situation in Ukraine remains as serious as it is. Meanwhile, supporters of Boris Johnson view the past few weeks as giving them time to reset, through staff changes and simply avoiding the daily toll of constant party stories. But they are aware that the danger has not been eliminated. They know there are plenty of Tory MPs who would like Johnson gone. As ever, a lot of this is about timing. The May local elections are shaping up to be a crunch judgment on Johnson’s leadership.
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