Fresh revelations in the partygate affair have many asking why Boris Johnson feels no need to resign. The full version of the report by civil servant Sue Gray into gatherings at Downing Street during pandemic lockdowns included multiple images of the prime minister raising a glass near a table littered with wine bottles. He had previously insisted in the House of Commons that no rules were broken on this date.
Whether or not the photos depict Johnson enjoying a party is now a central question in the debate over whether he should resign for breaching the ministerial code.
Has Boris Johnson broken the ministerial code?
The ministerial code is a set of rules which government ministers are expected to abide by during their time in office.
The code includes a duty for ministers to abide by the law. This is set out in paragraph 1.3, which details “the overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life”.
The code also specifies that ministers must abide by a document published in 1995 called the Seven Principles of Public Life – which is also reproduced in full in the annex of the code. These principles are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.
We already know that Johnson was fined by police for attending a party in Downing Street on June 19 2020. The fine is an acknowledgement by the Metropolitan Police that they consider the prime minister to have broken COVID laws. That raises an obvious question: if the prime minister has broken the law, then hasn’t he broken the ministerial code too? The answer, unfortunately, when it comes to matters of the British constitution, is that it is never that simple.
Before assessing the facts of the case against the prime minister, it’s important to understand, in this situation, that the ministerial code is not a legal document. It reflects constitutional rules and conventions rather than laws.
It’s also important to note that each new prime minister updates and re-issues the ministerial code at the beginning of their tenure, which also means that the prime minister himself is the final arbitrator of the code.
It is for Johnson to decide whether a minister should be investigated after being accused of breaking the code. This is clearly a questionable state of affairs when it is the prime minister who stands accused of the breach.
Did Boris Johnson mislead parliament?
Fresh evidence that a party took place on government premises on November 13 2020 are particularly important because they bring into play another part of the ministerial code: the section that cites misleading parliament as a resigning offence.
November 13 is key because the prime minister has been asked about that date specifically in the House of Commons. During prime minister’s questions on December 8 2021, Labour MP Catherine West asked if he would tell the House whether a party had taken place on that day and the prime minister said:
No. But I am sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.
Given that there is now photo evidence, the allegation is that the prime minister has misled parliament.
According to paragraph 1.3c of the ministerial code:
It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.
The challenge with this part of the code (beyond the prime minister having the final say over the it) is the word “knowingly”. However much the evidence suggests that a party was held on November 13 in contravention of the lockdown rules of the time, it is incredibly hard to prove that the prime minister knowingly misled parliament if his reasoning for his answer to West’s question was that he believed the event on November 13 was within the rules.
It is also important to note at this stage that the Metropolitan Police have not fined the prime minister for his attendance at this event. That makes it all the easier for him to insist that he has not broken the code and does not have to resign on this point.
All this helps to explain why, in responding to the findings of the Sue Gray report in parliament, Johnson insisted once again that he had no knowledge of most of the events that took place in his home and workplace at the time and that his own attendance was fleeting and in compliance with rules about workplace gathering.
What happens next?
If the prime minister is not going to police the ministerial code, then it raises the question of who will. Without a legal mechanism, it comes down to parliament (particularly MPs).
The house has called on its privileges committee to investigate Johnson for having potentially misled parliament. This is a cross-party committee and is due to begin its investigations after the publication of the Gray report. How long the investigation will take is up to the committee and any sanctions recommended will need the approval of the whole house – so it can’t itself issue any sanctions against Johnson.
In practice, and given the government’s substantial majority, it really comes down to Conservative MPs to decide Johnson’s fate. They have the option of triggering a vote of no confidence in his leadership. The publication of Sue Gray’s report might tip some Conservative MPs over the edge and trigger such a vote.
It’s worth remembering that two important by-elections are coming up. If this scandal is followed by a double loss, more MPs might be tipped over the edge and a vote against Johnson could happen. But the prime minister has survived before and may survive again. His political future and the future of the government rest in the hands of his own MPs.