Boris Johnson’s Latest Controversy

Over the past few weeks, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his office were exposed for breaking COVID-19 protocols.

What was exposed?

From May 2020 to April 2021, 14 social gatherings were held in and around 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s main office and residence. Pictures and email invitations to the parties were leaked to the press. The first party was held on May 15, 2020 when Britain’s COVID-19 protocols prohibited more than two non-family members gathering outside. The last party was on April 16, 2021, when COVID-19 protocols had eased but nonetheless prohibited more than six people from gathering indoors. Johnson did not attend all of the parties, but members of his personal staff did. All parties exceeded the maximum number of attendees that was permitted by British law.  

What other controversies has Johnson faced while in office?

Johnson was accused of corruption in late 2020, when allegations were made that he used donor funds to renovate his apartment. Additionally, Johnson’s Brexit decision has been criticized for making it more difficult for British businesses to trade with Europe, increased European tariffs, and an overall reduction in trade with Europe. Through all of this criticism, Johnson has stayed in power.  

What are the legal repercussions of “Party-Gate”?

Since the outbreak of  COVID-19, over 100,000 people have paid fines for breaking COVID-19 protocols in the United Kingdom. The typical fine for small, unlawful gatherings is $270, with larger fines for gatherings with more people. A birthday party with 100 guests in June 2021 incurred a $13,400 fine. 

The police began investigating the parties at the prime minister’s office in January. in addition to an internal investigation conducted by senior civil servant Sue Gray. Gray’s report was released on January 31, which did not include events and subjects that are being investigated. However, Gray determined that some of the gatherings “represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time.” Gray did not attribute direct blame to Johnson for either attending or allowing these parties to occur at his office. The report also does not have any legal repercussions as it was not a police investigation. 

What has been the public reaction to  “Party-Gate”?

In the wake of “Party-Gate”, Johnson has significantly lost favor among Britons, as an early February poll indicated that his approval ratings plummeted to 24%. However, because of the UK Parliamentary system, voters don’t vote directly for Johnson in elections, but rather individual representatives. 

Could Johnson lose the Prime Ministership?

In order for Johnson to lose power, a vote of no confidence would have to be passed in the House of Commons. A vote of no confidence requires a simple majority, and if a vote of confidence cannot be won in 14 days to undo the vote , a general election can be called or the leader of the opposition party can simply take over. Johnson’s Tory party currently has 71 seats over the opposition, so at least 36 Tory MP’s would have to support the vote in addition to the entire opposition. While this sounds like a big ask, Tory MP’s have already pledged to support a vote of no confidence when the findings from the police investigation are released. While these pledges have mainly come from lower level MP’s, more prominent parliament members  have said anonymously that “If there’s any evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the prime minister, he can’t stay in post”.  

It is too soon to determine what the actual legal and political repercussions will be for Johnson,   

However, it appears that “Party-Gate” represents more than a transitory political scandal for Johnson, as it has provoked a formal police investigation, created significant outrage from the public, and has distanced both junior and senior Tory MP’s from Johnson.  

Bailey Pasternak is a freshman majoring in International Studies at Johns Hopkins. He is from Cleveland, OH and is a blog writer for the Hopkins Podcast on Foreign Affairs.

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