Johnson avoids more fines as UK police end 'partygate' probe

Mr Boris Johnson, who received a fine last month, has been told he won't receive another. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Mr Boris Johnson won't be fined again for breaking coronavirus regulations after UK police concluded a probe into rule-breaking gatherings during lockdown, a major boost for the Prime Minister after months of turmoil.

London's Metropolitan Police said on Thursday (May 19) it has made a total of 126 referrals for fines as part of its investigation into the "partygate" allegations that have dogged the Prime Minister and his government.

Mr Johnson, who received a fine last month, has been told he won't receive another, his spokesman Max Blain told reporters at a regular briefing.

The pressure on Mr Johnson from within his ruling Conservative Party has eased considerably in recent weeks due to the crisis in Ukraine, which shifted the focus of would-be Tory rebels seeking to oust him.

But the police probe was still hanging over him, and there was still the potential that further fines or damaging details could spur his critics to try again to remove him.

Thursday's police statement removes one of the key risks facing Mr Johnson.

While the expected publication of an internal civil service report on the allegations next week could yet undermine him, Mr Johnson now looks more likely to lead the Tories into the next general election, due by 2024 at the latest.

Labour blow

Instead, the pressure is likely to build on Labour leader Keir Starmer, who faces his own police probe into allegations of coronavirus rule-breaking while campaigning in northern England last year.

Mr Starmer has repeatedly called on Mr Johnson to resign after the Prime Minister - along with his wife and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak - were fined for attending a birthday gathering for the premier during the pandemic.

"My view of the Prime Minister hasn't changed," Mr Starmer told Sky News after the police announcement on Thursday.

"After an investigation that shows 120-plus breaches of the law in Downing Street, of course he should resign. He's responsible for the culture."

Mr Starmer has himself pledged to resign if he gets a police fine. But the strategy of applying that standard to Mr Johnson looks almost certain to fail given the prime minister will not be given a further penalty.

It could yet be the case that Labour will be the party looking for a new leader.

Storm clouds

Still, it remains the case that "partygate" has left Mr Johnson as the first sitting prime minister found to have broken the law, which does not sit well with members of his party.

His critics will now look to the findings of an internal government investigation into the culture of rule-breaking in Downing Street.

In her 12-page interim report published in February, senior civil servant Sue Gray said "too little thought" was given to the conditions faced by people across the UK under strict Covid-19 restrictions, and that some events "should not have been allowed to take place".

Mr Johnson is expected to update Parliament on "partygate" once Ms Gray has published her report, and is likely to now shift the focus beyond the allegations - while heaping pressure on Mr Starmer - to the government's priorities.

They include how to tackle a spiralling cost-of-living crisis, which has divided ministers and further damaged support for his Tories - the party lost hundreds of seats in recent local elections.

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