Photo leaked to ITV News
Within two days of the publication of this article, Johnson responded to the risk it highlighted – of him being forced to resign for breaching his Ministerial Code – by rewriting the Code so that it has no teeth. There is no longer any serious penalty, even in principle, for breaching the Code. The actions suggested at the end of the article are even more urgent.
Johnson appears to have skin of Teflon. He has weathered a track record of poor performance that would have sunk any previous Prime Minister. He has presided over a disastrous set of local election results, and been supported by the press. He has failed to ameliorate – indeed to a significant extent he has caused – a grave cost-of-living crisis in the UK. He has attacked our democratic safeguards.
And nothing seems, at least on the surface, to have lessened his grip on power.
Now we have Partygate: a series of revelations about partying at Number 10, which were initially denied by the Prime Minister and then confirmed by a series of leaked photographs. When it became impossible to continue to deny their existence, Johnson sought to play them down. Eventually, he was forced to establish an Inquiry, led by Sue Gray; and the Metropolitan Police was forced, after pressure from the Good Law Project to investigate.
We are now in the extraordinary situation where a serving Prime Minister is both a convicted criminal and an established liar – and it could be the latter that sinks Johnson:
- The Metropolitan Police investigation established that both Johnson and Sunak had broken the law;
- Sue Gray’s Inquiry showed beyond doubt what many had long known: that Johnson had lied to the House;
- Curiously, it could be the second of these which punctures the Teflon.
In April, the Prime Minister (along with his Chancellor and over 100 others) was found guilty of breaching his lockdown regulations and received (and paid, rather than contesting) a fixed penalty notice (FPN) from the Metropolitan Police in relation to that breach. There is no question that he has committed a crime. Indeed it is a serious crime – needlessly gathering at the height of a deadly pandemic – for which ordinary citizens were fined up to £10,000.
But Johnson and his supporters have repeatedly downplayed the significance of the incident, suggesting that Johnson was “ambushed by cake” as though a) Johnson were the victim rather than the perpetrator and b) the issue was about a trivial matter like cake rather than the breach of a serious law, and he has refused to resign. So far, most of his MPs have taken the view that receiving an FPN is akin to a getting speeding ticket, and that he should not be forced to resign on the basis of his law-breaking alone.
Misleading the House
The key event is perhaps the May garden party which Sue Gray’s report says:
“On 15 May 2020 in the early evening a number of people gathered in the No 10 garden. The individuals were divided into groups of varying sizes, with some standing on the grass and two other groups seated at tables on the terrace. A photograph of these groups was subsequently published in the Guardian newspaper on 19 December 2021.”
The photograph raised the profile of the event to such an extent that Johnson felt compelled to explain it in the House. Hansard, the official record of what is said in Parliament, records Johnson as saying on 12 January, 2022:
“When I went into that garden just after 6 o’clock on 20 May 2020, to thank groups of staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later to continue working. I believed implicitly that this was a work event, but with hindsight, I should have sent everyone back inside.”
Sue Gray’s report in contrast concludes:
“At a table on the terrace, the Prime Minister, Martin Reynolds (his Principal Private Secretary), and Dominic Cummings (his senior adviser) were continuing a lengthy meeting that had started in the Prime Minister’s office, before moving to the garden at around 18.00. The Prime Minister brought cheese and wine from his flat. The outdoor part of the meeting lasted for 40 minutes to an hour and they were briefly joined by the Prime Minister’s wife, during which time the photograph was taken. Martin Reynolds subsequently returned to the office to continue working.
The Prime Minister remained in the garden until around 19.20.”
So rather than the “25 minutes” that Johnson claimed to have been at the party, he was there for around 1 hour and 20 minutes – more than three times longer. Using the speeding-ticket analogy, if I drive at 35mph in a 30 mph zone, it is credible if I tell the police that I did not realise; if I drive at 90 mph in a 30 mph zone, that is quite incredible. It is not credible that Johnson’s statement to the House was anything other than knowingly misleading.
But that is not the only occasion. On 8 December 2021, the following exchange took place between Sir Kier Starmer and Boris Johnson:
Starmer: Last week, I asked the Prime Minister: was there “a Christmas party…in Downing Street for dozens of people on 18 December ?”—[Official Report, 1 December 2021; Vol. 704, c. 909.] The Prime Minister and the Government spent the week telling the British public that there was no party and that all guidance was followed completely. Millions of people now think the Prime Minister was taking them for fools and that they were lied to; they are right, aren’t they?
Johnson: I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman probably missed what I said at the beginning, but I apologise for the impression that has been given that staff in Downing Street take this less than seriously. I am sickened myself and furious about that, but I repeat what I have said to him: I have been repeatedly assured that the rules were not broken.
Sue Gray’s report makes it clear that there was indeed a party on 18 December 2020 and that this was one of a series of regular Wine Time Friday (WTF) gatherings, and was a large and noisy event audible throughout Downing Street. While it is (just) conceivable that Johnson was previously unaware of this event, it is not credible that he was unaware of the culture in Downing Street which had made these parties a weekly event and that he was genuinely sickened and furious. He misled the House.
Could this Puncture Johnson’s Teflon coating?
The Prime Minister, like all other ministers, is bound by the Ministerial Code which upholds the following Seven principles of Public Life:
- Selflessness Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.
- Integrity Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.
- Objectivity Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.
- Accountability Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
- Openness Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for doing so.
- Honesty Holders of public office should be truthful.
- Leadership Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.
While it may be argued that Johnson has failed to comply with each of these general principles, there is a more specific point concerning misleading Parliament of which the Code said:
“It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.”
Johnson has now added a new clause, however, which means that he alone decides the fate of any minister (including himself):
1.7 Where the Prime Minister determines that a breach of the
expected standards has occurred, he may ask the Independent
Adviser for confidential advice on the appropriate sanction. The
final decision rests with the Prime Minister. Where the Prime
Minister retains his confidence in the Minister, available
sanctions include requiring some form of public apology,
remedial action, or removal of ministerial salary for a period.
Many Conservative MPs privately believe that Johnson should go, either because they are appalled by his behaviour or simply because they now see him as an electoral liability. If 54 of them write to the 1922 Committee, a vote of no-confidence in Johnson will be called. And 54 letters does not look impossible, even if no further MPs turn against him.
So if you also think that now is the time for Johnson to go, here are two things you can do today:
- You can write to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner asking her to investigate whether Johnson remaining in post is compatible with Parliamentary Standards. If you would like to do that, everything you need is here; and
- You can write to your MPasking them to call for a vote of no-confidence in the Prime Minister. If you would like to write to your MP, these general guidelines may be useful, and this template may help you get started.
If you think you might like to help more generally, or just to keep informed, please do sign-up and join the 99% Organisation.