Johnson and Rishi Sunak apologise after Partygate fines but resist calls to resign

PM insists it "did not occur" to him that attending gathering was a breach of Covid rules
Photo: Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire

By Eleanor Langford

13 Apr 2022

Prime minister Boris Johnson, his wife Carrie Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak have all issued apologies and confirmed they have paid the fixed-penalty notices issued to them over breaches of Covid-19 rules.

Yesterday No.10 confirmed that Sunak and the Johnsons were among more than 50 people who have been issued with FPNs relating to events in Downing Street and Whitehall during lockdown. 

In a televised statement, Johnson said he had paid the fine for attending "a brief gathering in the cabinet room" on 19 June 2020 for 10 minutes to accept well wishes from staff on his birthday.

"I have to say, in all frankness, at that time it did not occur to me that this might have been a breach of the rules," he said.

"But of course, the police have found otherwise and I fully respect the outcome of their investigation. 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."

He added: "Now I feel an even greater sense of obligation to deliver on the priorities of the British people."

Sunak has also issued an apology, saying he "regrets frustration and anger caused" and has paid the FPN issued to him. 

In a statement issued yesterday evening, he said he understood “that for figures in public office the rules must be applied stringently in order to maintain public confidence”.

"I respect the decision that has been made and have paid the fine. I know people sacrificed a great deal during Covid, and they will find this situation upsetting. I deeply regret the frustration and anger caused and I am sorry," the chancellor said.

"Like the prime minister, I am focused on delivering for the British people at this challenging time."

A spokesperson for Carrie Johnson, the PM's wife, said she also "believed that she was acting in accordance with the rules at the time... [but] accepts the Metropolitan Police’s findings and apologises unreservedly.”

'Stupid and indefensible'

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said this morning the PM is "incredibly embarrassed" about his involvement in the Partygate scandal. “He knows it was stupid, indefensible,” he told Sky News.

“He is completely mortified by this happening, and we know now a lot more about the day itself as well, because we understand about the meetings that were going on, eight separate meetings that day for the prime minister.

“[He] went out and visited a school and came back and, by surprise, some of his team had arranged to wish him happy birthday.”

He continued: “The question is, did he set out to do this? Was it something that was done with malice, with intent? The answer of course is no – it’s something that happened in error.”

Shapps insisted that the PM “didn’t knowingly break the law”.

“He didn’t do it deliberately. He thought that people wishing him happy birthday was not breaking the law," he said.

The transport secretary went on to insist that Johnson was “an honourable man” who was also “flawed” as all humans were.

'They must both resign'

Labour leader Keir Starmer has called for both Johnson and Sunak to resign following the news.

"Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have broken the law and repeatedly lied to the British public," he said in a statement.

"They must both resign. The Conservatives are totally unfit to govern. Britain deserves better."

Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy said the latest announcement showed there was "criminality and lies at the heart of government" which was "led by the prime minister and the chancellor".

"Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak must resign now for breaking the laws they enforced on us all," he added.

The Met Police confirmed in January that it would be investigating a total of 12 gatherings in Downing Street and Whitehall alleged to have broken Covid rules.

In its latest update, the force confirmed it had now made more than 50 referrals to the ACRO Criminal Records Office responsible for dishing out the FPNs to individuals.

Last month the police issued 20 initial fines related to lockdown-breaching events held in Downing Street.

The first group of fines were linked to two events which reportedly took place in Whitehall on the evening of 16 April, the night before the funeral of Prince Philip.

Speaking after the last fines were issued, Johnson refused to accept lockdown laws had been broken, but said he apologised for the events.

"I have been several times to the House to talk about this and to explain and to apologise and to set out the things that we are doing to change the way things run in No.10," he said. 

"But what I also said repeatedly...  I won't give a running commentary on an investigation that is under way."

Rishi Sunak has also previously denied attending lockdown breaching events, claiming in the Commons in December 2021 that he "did not attend any parties".

Numerous Tory MPs have previously told CSW's sister title PoliticsHome that they would feel compelled to submit no confidence letters in the prime minister should he be issued with an FPN over lockdown breaches.

"His rhetoric is of someone who intends to tough it out, but if he’s found to have been in breach of his own law, he would be in a very difficult position,” one former secretary of state said in February.

MPs have also previously called for advisers and civil servants hit with fines to be sacked by Boris Johnson. 

"Getting an FPN for breaking Covid rules that they effectively set should be a resignation matter for the special advisers or senior civil servants concerned," a senior Conservative MP said last month.

“If they do not resign, the prime minister should sack them."

Two cabinet ministers also told The Times earlier this year that they would withdraw support in the PM if he was issued with an FPN.

Eleanor Langford is a reporter for CSW sister title PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared

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