The Observer view on the investigation into Covid lawbreaking in Downing St

Political analysts discount the predictions parties spin out about their election performance as expectation management. The idea is to represent what is in reality a poor result as better than expected. But it is an entirely new development for this to be happening in relation to the number of times a prime minister has been fined for breaking the law.

The Metropolitan police announced last week that they had concluded their investigation into Covid lawbreaking in Downing Street and other parts of Whitehall. They issued fines for a total of 126 breaches of Covid regulations by 83 people working in government, making Downing Street the most fined address for this in the country. Boris Johnson received one fine for breaking the law, for celebrating his birthday at a party with cake in June 2020, as did the chancellor, Rishi Sunak.

Before the Met launched its investigation, the general consensus was that if the prime minister were fined for breaking his own laws, he would have to resign. But shifting expectations management means his allies are now trying to claim that because he received only one fine – when he could have been in line for more, for breaking the law on several occasions – his position is secure. One of his ministers, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has even gone so far as to suggest that the police fining the prime minister for breaking the law is a “non story”.

This is cynical in the extreme. The social restrictions imposed in law by the government during the pandemic were designed to save lives and to protect the NHS. It’s not then just a matter of whether or not the prime minister attended parties; it goes to the heart of the integrity of our government and those who run it. The prime minister and senior officials in government clearly saw themselves above regulations introduced during a national emergency, regulations that were observed at great cost by millions of ordinary citizens, who did not get to spend time with dying loved ones or even to attend their funerals. They did not break the law, but the prime minister did, in order to socialise with colleagues for frivolous reasons. His behaviour renders him wholly unfit to lead our country.

There are serious questions for the Met over the conduct of this investigation, which it originally said was unnecessary, but which has now resulted in more than a hundred fines being issued. The opacity of the investigation further undermines confidence in the political impartiality of the police, whose duty it is to uphold the rule of law without fear or favour. Why was the prime minister reportedly only investigated for attending two of the events the police were looking into, when we know he was present at six of them? Why did Simon Case, who as cabinet secretary is the most senior official in government, receive not a single fine when he attended many events – including the birthday party that Johnson and Sunak were fined for attending? And why were so many junior officials fined for attending events, when senior officials were not? Were the 28 individuals found to have breached Covid regulations multiple times issued with fines of escalating value, as has been the case for members of the public? It is of paramount importance that the Met answers these questions in order to maintain public confidence in the police investigation.

The Durham police investigation into the takeaway meal Keir Starmer and Labour party staff shared while campaigning last year is yet to conclude. There is a material difference between a meal being shared with colleagues during a break when they are working together away from home, if Starmer’s account of what happened is accurate, and the kinds of social gatherings that were repeatedly happening in Downing Street, including during strict lockdowns. But if the police find Starmer did break the rules, he has rightly said he will resign. Were this to happen, it could leave the country in the absurd situation where the leader of the opposition resigns after receiving a police fine, but the prime minister brazens it out.

This is because Johnson’s fate lies solely in the hands of the Conservative parliamentary party. And too many Tory MPs appear to be evaluating Johnson’s future not in terms of the right thing to do – maintaining the integrity of the government, and public confidence in the rule of law and our democratic institutions – but as a calculation about their party’s narrow electoral interests. The unpopularity of Johnson drove the Conservatives’ poor performance in this month’s local elections, but not enough of them are yet convinced there is a clear successor who will do better than him.

A prime minister who has no shame simply continues in post, despite the finding that he broke the laws imposed to save lives during a national emergency. The publication of Sue Gray’s report into the behaviour of Johnson and other senior officials and ministers is likely to be damning, but unless something materially changes in the minds of Conservative backbenchers, Johnson will remain in his job. There is no chance of a man like him voluntarily stepping up to take responsibility for his own actions or those who work for him. It is an insult to the whole nation, but especially to those citizens who made great personal sacrifices in order to dutifully observe the law.

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