A fine issued to Boris Johnson could prove far more costly to the U.K. prime minister than the paltry amount he had to pay.
While the fine is not expected to spell the immediate end of his term in office, it could spark a constitutional crisis in the U.K., Washington’s closest European ally, at a time when the continent is embroiled in a proxy war with Russia.
That’s because the fixed penalty notice he received means law enforcement officials believe he is guilty of breaching the very COVID lockdown rules he imposed by attending at least one unsanctioned party at 10 Downing Street, the official residence and office of Britain’s prime minister.
Johnson repeatedly assured lawmakers he never knowingly did, which could be his undoing. Under the ministerial code, anyone caught lying to Parliament is expected to resign. However, since the U.K. has no formal constitution in the strictest sense, abiding by the code is ultimately optional.
Experts are now concerned Conservative Party MPs could defy the honor system and simply let Johnson, their party’s standard-bearer, get away with it. Placing him above the code would undermine the foundations of one of the world’s oldest democracies, they say.
“This is perhaps the most important test of the robustness and efficacy of the checks and balances in the British constitution of my lifetime,” ITV’s Robert Peston wrote in The Spectator, a beacon for the political right the PM himself once oversaw as editor.
‘Day of reckoning’
“If they blithely ignore the ministerial code,” the Johnson-friendly broadcast journalist added, “then the charge will stick that this or any party with a big majority is simply an elected dictatorship and the constitution means little or nothing.”
The PM, who denied first the existence and later the nature of numerous parties at Downing Street, until the evidence became overwhelming, argued he was fined only for a brief 10-minute gathering on his birthday.
“In all frankness, at that time, it did not occur to me that this might have been a breach of the rules,” he said, without disclosing the amount he claims to have already paid.
Johnson’s disheveled look, signature mussed hair, and affable antics helped take him from TV shows to London mayor during the Olympic Games—and eventually to become prime minister in 2019.
On the way, however, he earned a reputation for lying that caused former Speaker of the House John Bercow to call him in February “ritually dishonest, having a nodding acquaintance with the truth only in a leap year.”
Much like Donald Trump, Johnson survived numerous scandals, including potential corruption in connection with his Downing Street flat and even lying to the Queen.
“Partygate,” as it’s known, has cut through, however, fueled by the anger of countless voters unable to see dying loved ones and or attend funerals because of lockdown rules put in place by the Johnson government; 75% of respondents to a YouGov poll said they believed Johnson knowingly lied about breaking the lockdown rules.
With the fines, “partygate” has now proved doubly damaging for the Conservatives: Not only has it engulfed Johnson, but also the man often tipped to be his likely successor, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak.
Sunak has also been served with a fine, which adds to recent controversies over his wife’s tax domicile in India and revelations he held a U.S. green card while serving in the U.K. government.
Now the Conservatives must close ranks around their leader just a few weeks before crucial May 5 elections for local councils across England. Those elected become the party’s foot soldiers, responsible for building deep roots in their constituencies and canvassing for support in general elections that will be held no later than 2024.
Since a loss of seats can be costly for troop morale, a poor showing next month could result in a vote of no confidence in Johnson.
That is if his premiership does not end sooner.
Opposition leader Keir Starmer of the Labour Party and Ed Davey, head of the Liberal Democrats, have both called on him to resign for breaking the ministerial code as have others in Westminster.
“The PM knowingly lied to parliament and public when claiming he’d been ‘repeatedly assured’ there were no parties,” posted Green Party MP Caroline Lucas on Twitter. “If he’s allowed to stay on, it would be a constitutional crisis.”
For now, at least, Johnson’s party is standing behind him.
With the U.K. a major provider of military and financial aid to the Ukrainians, even internal party opponents like Roger Gale have pleaded for a stay of execution.
“Our absolute priority must be to assist the liberation of the Ukrainian people,” he wrote on Tuesday. “There will be a day of domestic reckoning for the Prime Minister, but that time is not now.”
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