There will be huge relief in Downing Street that Boris Johnson is to receive no more fines for partygate, and at first sight it does appear that the “greased piglet” may have wriggled out of yet another impossibly tight corner. Politics is about expectations after all – and the expectation was that the Metropolitan Police would issue the Prime Minister with two or three more fixed-penalty notices for the eight gatherings that occurred during the draconian lockdowns he imposed on the country during the Covid pandemic.
However, the Met did not do so – because it appears to have bought his excuse that No 10 was where he lived. Helen Ball, the Met’s acting deputy commissioner, said a determining factor in deciding whether to issue fines was whether an event had taken place in “someone’s home”.
Johnson’s supporters will now insist that it is time to move on, to focus on the problems people really care about, to address the deepening cost-of-living crisis. But he has not really escaped the grip of partygate – at least not yet – for a few reasons.
Firstly, Sue Gray’s final report is now expected to be published imminently and is likely to be damning. Her heavily redacted initial report in late January gave a taste of what to expect. It left no doubt that Johnson presided over a pretty rotten culture inside No 10. It talked of “failures of leadership and judgement”, gatherings that “should not have been allowed to take place”, excessive drinking and a “serious failure to observe” the standards expected of public servants.
Secondly, the Privileges Committee will launch its investigation into whether Johnson deliberately lied to the House of Commons when, in quick succession, he emphatically and repeatedly denied there had been any gatherings, denied that any rules were broken and denied that he had attended any of them.
The evidence to the contrary, the evidence that he presided over what Keir Starmer calls “industrial-scale law-breaking”, appears overwhelming. Johnson has been fined once for breaking his own Covid regulations, making him the first prime minister in British history to receive a criminal sanction while in office. So, according to the Met, have 82 of his advisers and civil servants, some multiple times, for attending eight different Downing Street gatherings. No amount of spin can disguise the fact that a total of 126 penalty notices is an awful lot, and it is hard to see how Johnson squares that awkward fact with his earlier unequivocal denials.
Finally there is the court of public opinion. However the Met chooses to interpret the law, most ordinary people know perfectly well that he partied and lied about it while they were barred from deathbeds, funerals, weddings, births and christenings. They have seen the photographs, read the emails, seen the infamous Allegra Stratton video clip and heard the apologies of those with consciences.
A string of recent scandals involving Tory MPs has only compounded the sense of a regime corrupted by 12 years in power, but what a terrible injustice it would be if, perversely, the Prime Minister emerges from “partygate” with his immediate grip on power actually strengthened.
It has hobbled Rishi Sunak, who was the most – and perhaps only – plausible candidate to succeed Johnson as party leader. And it could yet force Starmer to resign as opposition leader if he is fined for the single, relatively trifling offence of sharing a beer and curry with aides at the end of a day’s campaigning.