Will ‘Partygate’ come back to bite Boris Johnson?

Fine for government’s former head of ethics has placed lockdown scandal back in the headlines

Boris Johnson leaves No. 10 Downing Street
(Image credit: Rasid Necati Aslim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Speculation is mounting over who will be fined for No. 10 lockdown breaches after the government’s former head of ethics received a fixed penalty notice for attending a leaving party while the UK was under national restrictions.

Helen MacNamara, who now works for the Premier League, apologised for her “error of judgement” after a leak named the former senior civil servant as one of the 20 people issued with fines after a police investigation into “Partygate” events, Sky News reported.

In becoming the first person to admit to paying a penalty as a result of the probe, MacNamara has placed the scandal back in the spotlight after the Russian invasion of Ukraine pushed it off the front pages. So could it yet come back to bite Boris Johnson and his No. 10 team?

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Who has been fined?

MacNamara was fined by police for attending a “raucous” lockdown party at which there was a drunken brawl, said The Telegraph.

The former deputy cabinet secretary, whose karaoke machine was used at the event on 18 June 2020, is among the first group of people to receive a fixed penalty notice from Scotland Yard in connection with the scandal.

She received a £50 fine on Friday after police concluded she had broken Covid-19 laws by attending the leaving party for Hannah Young, a Downing Street aide, who was moving to a role with the British Consulate General in the US.

Sky News said the Metropolitan Police has so far issued 20 fines to people who attended lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street. No. 10 has said the only people that will be named in the event of a fine are Boris Johnson and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case.

Paul Brand, UK editor of ITV News, tweeted that some of the fines are larger than MacNamara’s, adding: “Some junior staffers embroiled in partygate are being fined £200 (or £100 if paid within 14 days).”

Scotland Yard is expected to issue a further wave of fines in the next few weeks, with Sue Gray due to publish her full report once fines have been handed out.

Threat to the PM

In January, as details of more Downing Street parties emerged on an almost daily basis and Tory MPs publicly called for Boris Johnson to quit, “Partygate” seemed to be a significant threat to the prime minister.

The war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis have since pushed the issue off the front pages. But some feel that news of the fines could put Johnson back in danger.

“Partygate is back in the headlines” because of the fines, said HuffPost political editor Kevin Schofield, bringing the scandal “right back into the public eye – and also to Boris Johnson’s front door”.

Although it “has fallen down the list of voters’ priorities” due to the cost of living crisis, “it hasn’t gone away entirely”, he added. And if the prime minister himself is found to have broken the law, “public anger will return and could well be enough to sweep Johnson from office”.

Johnson was among 100 people who were sent formal legal questionnaires relating to the investigation. But the Press Association has reported that he is not expected to be among the initial wave of fines.

A Tory MP told HuffPost that Johnson’s future comes down to whether he is given a fixed penalty notice. “If he doesn’t get fined, he’s got away with it,” they said. “But if he does, then all bets are off.”

According to ITV political editor Robert Peston, the prime minister looks increasingly likely to be hit with a financial penalty.

Peston said that he understands Johnson will not be interviewed by the Met Police, but said this “paradoxically means he is more likely to be fined” because “the Met are not interviewing those who received questionnaires and are in the frame to be fined”.

But other Conservatives feel Johnson is safe, with Conservative Home reporting that his stock has increased with party members during the war in Ukraine.

Jacob Rees-Mogg described the issue as “fluff” during an appearance on LBC, adding: “In the context of what is going on, not just with Ukraine but with the cost of living crisis, this is not the most important issue in the world.”

Simon Hart, the Welsh secretary, also told Sky News that most of his constituents “want an apology, but they don’t want a resignation”.

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