LONDON — The U.K. prime minister and his chancellor have been fined for breaking the laws they imposed on the rest of the country during the coronavirus pandemic.
Boris Johnson apologized Tuesday after both he and his top minister, Rishi Sunak, were served with fines as part of the Metropolitan Police investigation into a series of lockdown-busting parties that took place at the heart of government while strict COVID curbs were in place. Johnson’s wife Carrie has also been notified that she will receive a fine.
It’s believed to be the first time a sitting prime minister has broken the law. With politics in uncharted waters it’s by no means clear what happens now in the Partygate scandal, but here are some possible scenarios.
1) Nothing happens … yet
It may be hard to believe, but one of the most likely outcomes is that, essentially, nothing happens.
Johnson swiftly accepted the fine, apologized and could now sit tight in the hope that Conservative resentment towards him fizzles out. Much will depend on how his apology plays with that vital constituency.
A Conservative leader can only be challenged if enough of his own MPs express no confidence in him (more on that below). Earlier in the year, a confidence ballot seemed a real possibility, with 12 MPs on the record as having called for Johnson to go.
And yet the mood music in Westminster has shifted significantly since then — in large part because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. One MP publicly stated last month they had withdrawn their letter of no confidence because it was not the right time for a leadership contest.
Now, one of Johnson’s staunchest Tory critics, Roger Gale, has warned this is not the time to “unseat” the prime minister, while Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, who previously called on Johnson to quit, said the PM’s removal “would destabilize the U.K. government when we need to be united in the face of Russian aggression.”
Cabinet ministers and MPs rallied more quickly and decisively on news of the fine on Tuesday evening than they did when the police first announced they were investigating.
Johnson is further helped by the fact the U.K. parliament is currently on its Easter break, and can only be recalled with his approval. This means twitchy MPs are not around to question him — or plot against him.
That’s not to say there won’t be further moments of danger: a crucial set of local elections, when voters have an opportunity to give the Conservative Party a bloody nose, and the publication of a full report into the parties by senior government official Sue Gray, which is being held back while police complete their probe.
There’s also the possibility Johnson receives additional fines, something that could test his MPs’ loyalty all over again.
2) Sunak resigns
The decision to punish Sunak — previously the leading challenger for the top job if Johnson comes unstuck — was arguably Tuesday’s biggest surprise.
It follows one of the worst weeks of Sunak’s political career, in which he’s faced questions over his family’s tax arrangements. This, combined with longstanding policy tensions between the chancellor and the PM, had already prompted some speculation he could decide to quit politics altogether.
Quitting would amount to the nuclear option for Sunak. It would make the prime minister look bad by comparison and up the pressure on him to go too. It would also likely mean the end of Sunak’s leadership ambitions, since it would imply he doesn’t think a law-breaker can be prime minister.
One Conservative MP who thought Sunak could weather the storm over his family wealth said news of the fine meant it was now “over” for him. Others pointed out that, despite Sunak’s apparent interest in taking the top job, he has not cultivated a strong following in the parliamentary party and that this will make it even harder for him to come back.
3) Johnson resigns
Johnson’s political opponents are loudly calling for him to fall on his sword — but he’s already made clear he’s not going anywhere.
“Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have broken the law and repeatedly lied to the British public. They must both resign,” opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said.
Johnson pushed back at those calls Tuesday, telling reporters he feels a duty “to deliver on the priorities of the British people,” and flagging his determination to ensure “Putin fails in Ukraine and easing the burden on families caused by higher energy prices.” Expect to hear that argument a lot.
In truth, a prime ministerial resignation is one of the least likely scenarios. Johnson is renowned for clinging on in a tight spot.
From the early days of his career when he was sacked for lying about an extramarital affair to the time he was found to have unlawfully shut down parliament at the height of his Brexit battles with MPs, Johnson is no stranger to a political controversy — or a comeback.
4) No-confidence letters pile up
Despite the Easter lull, Conservative MPs could still make a move against Johnson — they just need a critical mass to get things moving.
It’s arcane stuff, but the Tory leadership rules are crucial.
Tory MPs can move against a leader by writing letters (or emails) of no confidence to the chairman of the party’s 1922 Committee, Graham Brady. If 15 percent of Johnson’s Conservative MPs write to Brady asking for a confidence vote, the committee’s executive meets to consult on whether to call one.
The Conservatives currently have 360 MPs, so 54 letters would need to go in for that to happen. This can be done privately — so it is impossible to know how near a vote we might be.
If a vote does then go ahead, Johnson only needs the support of a simple majority of his own MPs (more than 50 percent) to stay on as leader and prime minister. No new vote can then be triggered for 12 months, meaning the whole process could (temporarily, at least) shore up his position.
The initial findings of the Sue Gray report were enough for some MPs to announce they had called for a vote of no-confidence — but many opted to keep their powder dry, saying they would wait for the police investigations or Gray report before making a decision.
The fines could conceivably prompt a flurry of new letters, with one former minister describing the news as “pretty grim,” and saying MPs were “now likely to act.”
Others, however, pointed to the multiple issues in Johnson’s in-tray and no obvious successor to the PM now that Sunak is also compromised.
5) Under-fire PM challenges MPs to back him
One route open to Johnson is to call a confidence vote in himself, in a bid to draw a line under the whole sorry episode.
There are two ways he could subject himself to this, both used by former Conservative prime ministers feeling the heat. The John Major option is to resign as Tory leader and trigger a leadership contest — effectively asking the party to back him or sack him.
Johnson could also allow a confidence vote in parliament, as Theresa May did under extreme pressure over her inability to pass a Brexit deal, although the parliamentary numbers are much more favorable for the current PM than they were for May after his thumping 2019 election victory.
Losing a parliamentary confidence vote would likely trigger a fresh general election — and plenty more drama.