London: Boris Johnson has survived the initial fallout from becoming the first British prime minister to be fined for breaking the law, but his long-term position remains precarious, analysts said Wednesday.
The embattled UK leader offered a “full apology” Tuesday after being penalised for breaching COVID lockdown laws by attending a brief celebration of his birthday in 2020, but defied calls to resign.
However, the so-called “partygate” scandal shows little sign of abating.
Johnson faces further possible fines as police continue their probe into numerous rules-breaching events in Downing Street, while his ruling Conservatives look set to be punished in local elections next month.
And once police have concluded their investigation, a senior civil servant’s detailed report on the scandal will be published in full, which seems likely to increase the political pressure.
Once-mutinous Conservative MPs have in recent weeks rallied around their leader as the war in Ukraine and the growing cost-of-living crisis diverted attention away from the furore.
But commentators are questioning whether Johnson, 57, can maintain that support if he is repeatedly fined, his party fares poorly in the May 5 nationwide polls and further lurid details of parties emerge.
“A lot more fines and a lot more headlines might change the view of more voters and that in turn might change the mind of Conservative MPs if they do very badly in the elections,” Anand Menon, a politics professor at King’s College London, told AFP.
“He’s clearly willing and able to brazen some things out in a way other, earlier prime ministers probably weren’t... I don’t think he’s superhuman, though.”
Johnson’s position was hanging by a thread earlier this year following a stream of controversies since last summer that culminated in “partygate” and an increasingly rebellious mood among his MPs.
Several Conservative lawmakers publicly withdrew their support for his leadership, with more reportedly writing letters of no-confidence in him to the party’s 1922 Committee.
If the grouping of backbenchers receives at least 54 such letters from Johnson’s 360 MPs, it would spark a confidence vote and his possible removal as leader.
“Boris Johnson will remain PM so long as he... retains the confidence of the Conservative group of MPs,” Robert Hazell, of University College London’s Constitution Unit, explained.
“It is they who will decide his fate.”
Johnson is expected to face lawmakers when they return from their Easter break next week to explain why he repeatedly insisted in the House of Commons that no lockdown rules had been broken.
Knowingly misleading parliament is a breach of government ministers’ code of conduct, which states they should resign as a result.
Hannah White, of the Institute for Government think tank, told the BBC that Johnson’s refusal to do so “puts us in a very difficult situation”.
“If it is now henceforth precedent that if you break the law as a minister, you don’t automatically have to resign, that’s... quite a difficult precedent to have been set,” she said.
White noted that Johnson was hoping voters’ anger over “partygate” had dissipated.
But Britons across the country made huge sacrifices during the pandemic, including not being able to attend loved one’s funerals. Opinion polls suggest that many remain furious at the behaviour in Downing Street.
A snap survey Tuesday by YouGov found 57 percent of respondents thought Johnson should resign after having been fined.
“They are able to see that Boris Johnson has done a good job on Ukraine but that anger about ‘partygate’ has continued throughout the entire time,” James Johnson, a Conservative pollster, told BBC radio.
“I think we’re going to see this really light that anger up all over again,” he said. It would be “deluded” to think the Tories could avoid fallout from the scandal at the ballot box, he added on Twitter.
London Metropolitan Police, which is conducting the “partygate” probe, said Tuesday over 50 fines had been issued so far. The initial March 29 announcement had referred to just 20.
Johnson’s wife Carrie and finance minister Rishi Sunak have also been fined, and the British leader attended several more of the events under investigation.
That has led to a widespread expectation that more fines are imminent - possibly as voters head to the polls in three weeks.
Sebastian Payne, the Financial Times’ Whitehall editor, predicted that a poor Conservative electoral performance paired with the prime minister being fined again could be “the final straw” for its lawmakers.
“If they see electoral evidence that things are not going in their direction and that the ‘partygate’ situation is causing them to lose votes, that could change their thinking,” he told BBC News.