Scandal has erupted within the government of America’s closest ally. Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, became the first prime minister to be found to have broken the law while in office last week when the Metropolitan Police fined him, along with his wife and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, for attending his birthday celebration at Number 10 Downing Street in June 2020.
Reports emerged about his attendance at other parties throughout 2020 – one taking place in May and two other parties taking place around the Christmas season. To make matters worse, videos emerged of Mr. Johnson’s staff laughing about a Christmas Party which took place at Downing Street.
The Hypocrisy of It All
The fact that Mr. Johnson broke the law while in office is only part of the scandal. Many British citizens are outraged at the hypocrisy surrounding the situation, particularly that their leader was not held to the same standards as the rest of the population as the parties took place when strict pandemic restrictions, implemented by Mr. Johnson’s government, were in effect at a time when families were unable to attend funerals or visit family who fell victim to COVID-19 while in the hospital. Calls from the opposition Labour Party and other parties, including within his own party, for Mr. Johnson to resign are growing louder. Despite calls for Mr. Johnson to resign, his political fate is not in as much danger as one would think.
Initially, Mr. Johnson’s reaction was almost dismissive when confronted with the violation. In December 2021, when the story first broke, he insisted that “all guidance was followed completely.” Mr. Johnson has since changed his tone, offering a more contrite response that borders on naïve, at best, or dishonest, at worst. “It did not occur to me then or subsequently that a gathering in the Cabinet room just before a vital meeting on Covid strategy could amount to a breach of the rules,” he stated when addressing the House of Commons for the first time. “I repeat that was my mistake and I apologize for it unreservedly,” he offered.
The Prime Minister also tried to re-direct the conversation by reminding the Members of Parliament (MPs) of his leadership in the face of the Russian war in Ukraine. His pivot rested on reiterating his major role in the conflict, playing up discussions he has had with U.S. President Biden and other world leaders and reminding the House about his recent travel to Ukraine to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky. He also reminded MPs of his upcoming trip to India. His supporters agree, saying it’s time to move on so that he can concentrate on issues of greater importance like energy prices and post-Brexit trade deals.
Labour is Loudest Of All
While one cannot argue that Mr. Johnson has exhibited skillful leadership on the world stage, the rest of the British government is not buying it. The Labour leader, Sir Keir Stamer, projected an exceptionally irritated response, calling Mr. Johnson’s apology “a joke.” He further accused Mr. Johnson of offering “insulting” and “absurd” excuses and that he was “eroding public trust in politicians.”
The criticism did not stop with Labour. Ed Davey, the head of the Liberal Democrats, was even less restrained in his criticism, commenting that Parliament should debate a motion of no confidence against Mr. Johnson. Even members of Mr. Johnson’s own Conservative Party noted that Mr. Johnson was “no longer worthy” of holding the office of the prime minister. Criticism was not limited to England. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, called on Mr. Johnson to resign.
Will Mr. Johnson Be Forced to Resign?
Mr. Johnson has reiterated that he has no intention of resigning the prime ministership. That choice may not be his to make. As the Washington Post points out, whether Mr. Johnson will stay in power rests partly in the hands of the MPs in his Conservative Party. At any point, Conservative MPs may trigger a leadership challenge should 54 Conservative MPs submit letters of no confidence. It remains unlikely that Mr. Johnson will be pushed out of power in this manner, though, as most Tories in Parliament have refrained from criticizing their leader over the recent Partygate scandal.
That is not the only constitutional threat to Mr. Johnson’s grip on power. The opposition Labour Party secured a vote on whether the House of Commons should investigate claims that Mr. Johnson misled Parliament when he said that all guidance and rules were followed during the parties as another means of possibly removing him from power. The question centers on whether Mr. Johnson broke the Ministerial Code, a code of conduct which British politicians are supposed to follow.
On Thursday, the Labour Party tabled a motion calling for Mr. Johnson to be investigated by a House of Commons privileges committee to determine whether he did, indeed, mislead Parliament, the third such investigation against him. Despite the pending investigation, Mr. Johnson is unlikely to be removed from power even if Parliament determines he is guilty as most Tory MPs are standing by Mr. Johnson. Additionally, while knowingly misleading Parliament is a resigning offense in British politics, the prime minister is the one who enforces that code, a task which Mr. Johnson is unlikely to complete.