For Boris Johnson the party’s over

The last person in the UK unwilling to accept that the law was broken, when Downing Street staff partied during Covid-19 lockdowns, is Boris Johnson.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman tied himself in knots yesterday as he tried to maintain a torturous line. Firstly, the PM does not formally accept the law was broken, despite Scotland Yard saying 20 fixed-penalty notices will now be issued, with more expected to follow.

Secondly, the people at the heart of government who broke Covid laws (which they helped to write and enforce) are being told they don’t need to reveal their fines – either to their employer (HM Gov) or to the wider public, who were dutifully abiding by the rules. There is a tension here between the Government’s duty of care to its employees, and between officials’ obligation to abide by the Civil Service Code, which includes complying with the law.

Correctly, the Prime Minister has been focusing on Ukraine. Right now, inflation, the cost of living and war in Europe are all more important than these lockdown breaches. Talk of bring-your-own-booze has been replaced by anti-tank weapons.

Yet Boris Johnson will still suffer a party hangover. This remains a toxic, dangerous problem. He still faces a police inquiry over allegations that he attended six lockdown-breaking parties at Downing Street. This is not an acceptable position for a Prime Minister, and he will eventually pay the political price.

If he too is fined, his claim to be unaware of all these lockdown parties at No 10 will sink.

The latest Downing Street comms strategy is untenable. The PM has repeatedly changed his denials, adjusting them to suit new facts as they emerge. At best, this has looked like sophistry.

Twenty fines shows mass disregard in Downing Street for public health laws. Either Mr Johnson did not know what many colleagues were up to, or he misled the public and Parliament. Opinion polling shows that the public doubts his integrity. People object to being treated like idiots. Tory strategists fear lasting damage.

Meanwhile, plenty of Downing Street staff fear for their futures. The place remains riddled by dysfunction, at a time when Britain’s domestic policy problems require a meticulous response and hard choices.

On lockdown parties, the flashpoint isn’t now. It’s when Scotland Yard decides whether or not to fine the Prime Minister – and then when Sue Gray delivers her final report on this debacle. Will MPs conclude that Boris Johnson knowingly misled Parliament? Or will a grovelling correction suffice? And what damage will the scandal do to the PM’s credibility?

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