Boris Johnson was tonight facing calls for his resignation after becoming the first sitting prime minister in UK history to be found by police to have broken the law.
Mr Johnson, his wife Carrie and chancellor Rishi Sunak were all issued with fixed penalty notices after the Metropolitan Police found they breached Covid laws by attending a 56th birthday party for the prime minister in the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street on 19 June 2020, when indoor social gatherings were strictly banned.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said that the fines showed that the PM and Mr Sunak had lied repeatedly about the Partygate scandal, dishonouring both their offices and the sacrifices of the British people. He said: “They have to go.”
His call for their resignation was echoed by former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson and by representatives of families bereaved by the pandemic, who said that the “shameless” prime minister had “taken us all for mugs” and caused untold hurt to those who lost loved ones.
And a snap poll by Savanta ComRes found that three in five voters (61 per cent) believe Johnson should resign after receiving a fine, against just 31 per cent who thought he should remain in office.
The Johnsons immediately paid their fines and the prime minister offered a “full apology” but made clear he had no intention of quitting.
He acknowledged public anger at his failure to observe restrictions which he had imposed on the entire nation and said voters “had the right to expect better” from him.
But he insisted that it had not occurred to him that the gathering – which he said lasted less than 10 minutes – was outside the rules.
And crucially he denied deliberately misleading parliament – something which the ministerial code makes clear is a resigning matter – when he said last December that no Covid rules had been broken at No 10. The statement was made “in completely good faith”, he insisted.
Mr Sunak confirmed he had paid the fine and issued an “unreserved” apology, saying that he “respects” the police decision and “deeply regrets the frustration and anger caused”.
However, he gave no indication that he was considering his position, despite having told MPs last November: “No, I did not attend any parties.” At the time his presence at the birthday party was first reported, Treasury sources suggested he had attended accidentally, thinking he was going to a Covid strategy meeting – an excuse which police did not accept.
In a letter to the prime minister, the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group urged Mr Johnson to quit, telling him: “You broke the laws intended to keep us safe. You trampled on the sacrifices we and all the British public made.
“You have paid a fine. Our loved ones paid with their lives.
“For the sake of the 187,929 who have been lost to Covid, the over 1,000 still dying each week from this horrible virus, for the hundreds of thousands of us who lost loved ones to it and every person who did the right thing, go and go now.”
Sir Keir said that the people of the UK had made “unimaginable, heart-wrenching sacrifices” during the Covid pandemic and felt guilt at being unable to see dying relatives or attend their funerals.
But he added: “The guilty men are the prime minister and the chancellor. They’ve dishonoured all of that sacrifice, they’ve dishonoured their office.
“This is the first time in the history of our country that a prime minister has been found to be in breach of the law, and then he lied repeatedly to the public about it. Britain deserves better, they have to go.”
And Baroness Davidson became the most prominent Tory to demand the PM’s departure, saying he had “lost the moral authority to lead”.
However there was no sign of the fines prompting a surge of no-confidence letters from Tory MPs to trigger a vote on Mr Johnson’s future.
Leading backbench critics such as Sir Roger Gale and Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said it was “not the time” to change leaders when war was raging in Ukraine.
But Sir Roger – the first MP to go public with his call for the PM to quit over Partygate – said Mr Johnson had not escaped the threat of removal by his own party.
“I don’t think the PM will lead us into the next election,” said the veteran Tory backbencher. “There will come a time the PM will have to face this, but that time is not now.”
Expressions of support for the prime minister from his own MPs were conspicuous by their absence. It was not until after the PM had issued a televised statement of apology from his countryside retreat Chequers that a rash of cabinet ministers, including Liz Truss, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab and Kwasi Kwarteng, released apparently coordinated tweets insisting that he should be allowed to get on with his job.
Mr Johnson said that the “brief gathering” in the Cabinet Room lasted less than 10 minutes, adding: “In all frankness at that time it did not occur to me that this might have been a breach of the rules.”
But, in an unprecedented admission of his own law-breaking, he added: “Of course, the police have found otherwise and I fully respect the outcome of their investigation.”
He said he understood “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”.
But he brushed off calls for his resignation, saying: “I believe it’s my job to get on and deliver for the people of this country. That’s what I’m going to do.”
The fines were among at least 30 imposed over the past fortnight by the Metropolitan Police, bringing the total number of penalties in relation to lockdown-breaching parties in Downing Street and Whitehall to more than 50. No detail of the size of the fines or the other receipients of FPNs have been released.
And Mr Johnson acknowledged that he may face further penalties, as the Met said that officers on Operation Hillman continue to assess “significant amounts of investigative material” and their inquiry is not complete.
As well as the birthday party, Mr Johnson was present at a “bring your own booze” gathering in the garden of No 10 on 20 May 2020 and took part in a Christmas Zoom quiz on 15 December 2020, when he was photographed flanked by two staff members.
It is also thought he may have been present at an “Abba party” held by wife Carrie in their flat above 11 Downing Street to celebrate the departure of former aide Dominic Cummings on 13 November 2020.
Any additional fine would increase the likelihood of further letters of no confidence from Tory MPs, particularly if the crisis in Ukraine has abated by that point. Some 54 letters are needed to trigger a vote on Mr Johnson’s future as leader.
Many Tory backbenchers are holding fire to see how badly the scandal affects the party’s showing in crucial local elections on 5 May, or until the publication in full of Whitehall mandarin Sue Gray’s report following the completion of the Met inquiry.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies