The scandal is far from over, though.
Johnson is the first sitting British prime minister in the modern era to have been found to have broken the law, according to British historians. And, ultimately, the judgment of Parliament ultimately may be more important than the assessment of the police.
Johnson’s critics on Tuesday were already calling on him to resign.
The prime minister was fined for breaking the law – rules his government mandated – by attending a gathering of “two people or more indoors” in the Cabinet Room at Downing Street on June 19, 2020.
That was a birthday party – attended by about 30 people, with singing and cake – reportedly organized by the prime minister’s wife Carrie Johnson as a surprise for her husband.
Carrie Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who serves as treasury secretary, were also among those cited by police on Tuesday as part of the criminal investigation into a dozen government parties during the pandemic.
In a prepared statement to broadcasters in the early evening, and a subsequent exchange with the BBC, Johnson said he had paid his fine and “once again offer a full apology.”
By his account, during a day otherwise packed with covid meetings and a school visit, he attended “a brief gathering… lasting for less than 10 minutes during which people I work with kindly passed on their good wishes.”
“I have to say in all frankness at that time it did not occur to me that this might have been a breach of the rules,” he said. “But of course the police have found otherwise and I fully respect the outcome of their investigation.”
The prime minister added: “I understand the anger that many will feel that I myself fell short when it came to observing the very rules that the government I lead had introduced to protect the public and I accept in all sincerity that people had the right to expect better. ”
Like her husband, Carrie Johnson’s spokesman said she would pay the fine.
London’s Metropolitan Police said Tuesday they have now issued 50 fines in their investigation of lockdown bashes at the prime minister’s office and residence and the nearby Cabinet Office.
The police have not named who else has been fined, what parties they attended, or even if the 50 fines have gone to 50 different people. But as the investigation is ongoing, more fines for more attendees for more gatherings are possible – including for Johnson.
The attendees are believed to be mostly government staffers.
Those set to be fined are first sent a “fixed penalty notice.” They can then simply pay the amount, likely to be 200 pounds ($ 263) – half if paid promptly. Or they have 28 days to contest the penalties, in which case the proceedings could include more police investigation – and even a trip to a courtroom.
While the fines may only be a couple hundred pounds each, the political costs for Johnson and his government could be considerable.
The prime minister in the past had sought to downplay the parties as “work events.” He earlier apologized for some of the gatherings, calling them wrong, and vowing to clean up the behavior at Downing Street. But he has repeatedly said that, as far as he knew, he and his staff broke no rules.
Now, Johnson is now associated with criminal behavior, be it minor. And his critics will hammer away that the prime minister is a dissembler, even a liar, who cannot be trusted.
His fate may rest on the question of whether he deliberately misled Parliament when he assured that “all guidance was followed completely in No 10” and “no covid rules were broken.”
Nicola Sturgeon, leader of Scotland, said both Johnson and Sunak should resign. So did Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labor Party, who said “it’s obvious there was widespread criminality” at 10 Downing Street, where Johnson lives and works.
Meanwhile, Ed Davey, the head of the Liberal Democrats, called for Parliament to come back into session to debate a motion of no confidence in the prime minister.
Johnson’s supporters have been saying it is time to move on, so Johnson and his government can devote their full attention to the war in Ukraine, skyrocketing energy prices and post-Brexit trade deals.
In the hours after the fines were announced Tuesday, the prime minister’s press office continued to highlight Johnson’s role as a wartime leader, offering reporters a readout of his earlier call with President Biden.
Support for the prime minister may now wane within his own party, if his fellow Tories feel like they’ve been made fools of.
Johnson’s fate lies in the hands of fellow Conservative Party lawmakers, who can trigger a leadership challenge if 54 Conservative members of Parliament submit letters of no confidence.
Steven Fielding, a political historian at the University of Nottingham, said that Johnson may be the first sitting British prime minister since the 17th century or earlier to have been found to have broken the law.
This, he said, was “shocking but not shocking.”
“In the great scheme of things it’s a great shock and scandal that the prime minister of the United Kingdom has found to have broken his own laws and lied about it.”
On the other hand, Fielding said, “we knew before Boris Johnson became prime minister that he lies, he tells mistruths to people to get to where he wants to be. This has been coming a long time and we expected it. ”
Johnson has long had a loose relationship with the truth. He was fired from a job as a journalist at the Times of London for making up a quote. He was also once lost a post in the leadership of his Conservative Party after he admitted he lied about a romantic affair.
If the Johnsons and Sunak are found to have attended just one gathering, a birthday singalong, organized by prime minister’s wife? Perhaps many people will consider it more a misdemeanor than a felony.
Police are looking into 12 gatheringsincluding ones that involved quiz games, wine and cheese celebrations, “BYOB” invitations – and alcohol that was brought in via wheeled luggage.
These took place during government-ordered lockdowns, when families were denied visits to loved ones in hospitals and the number of attendees at funerals was limited.
One party was on the eve of Prince Philip’s funerala somber goodbye at Windsor Castle, best remembered for the image of Queen Elizabeth II sitting alone and masked in St. George’s Chapel, where attendance was capped at 30 mourners.
An earlier internal investigation of the gatherings found that some showed “a serious failure” to observe the standards expected of government officials, a failure in leadership, excessive alcohol consumption.
Analysts said that attention will turn to the question of whether Johnson broke the “Ministerial Code,” or the code of conduct that British politicians are supposed to follow, by deliberately misleading Parliament when he said that “the guidance and the rules” around parties at Downing Street “were followed at all times.” If he did break the code, then by convention he should resign. The person in charge of enforcing that code is the British prime minister.
In late 2020, Johnson’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel, was found to have broken the code after an investigation into accusations of bullying. Johnson took no further action and she is still in the role.
Some commentators have questioned whether, given the war in Ukraine, now is the right time for the UK to change its leaders. Others point that Britain did change prime ministers during World War I and World War II.
Sunak serves as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in charge of the nation’s finances and budgets. It is one of the “Great Offices of State,” and when calls first went out for Johnson to resign over the parties, many Conservative Party members speculated that Sunak might make a good replacement.
But no more. Sunak has been under intense scrutiny since last week, when the British press revealed that his wife, Akshata Murty, had not been paying British taxes on her overseas earnings.
Murty is a billionaire who owns millions in shares of Indian technology giant Infosys, which was founded by her father. Murty claimed “non-domicile” status in British tax filings, even though she lives with her husband in Britain. Her tax position is one of many dual nationals deploy. It is legal, but the optics are terrible.
Until last week when the moving vans arrived, Sunak and Murty lived in the chancellor’s residence at 11 Downing St.
“Friend of animals everywhere. Coffee maven. Professional food trailblazer. Twitter buff.”