For a Prime Minister to be fined for breaking the law is almost certainly unprecedented. It is always possible that past occupants of No 10 failed to wear a seat belt or exceeded the speed limit but none has been penalised for doing so as far as we know. However, even if the fine here is of similar scale, the offence is far greater because the activities for which Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and dozens of officials and aides received fixed-penalty notices were not crimes until they made them so.
To face a possible career-ending moment for attending banned parties during the Covid lockdowns exemplifies how preposterous it was to use the criminal law to micro-manage the public’s behaviour.
Most people would not consider that to meet up with colleagues after work for a drink and a chat is in any way untoward, let alone a crime. It was made so by the Government and, it should be said, by Parliament which voted overwhelmingly in favour of the most restrictive constraints on social interaction ever seen in modern times.
At the time, we criticised the impact this was having on our freedom to associate even in our own home. Grieving relatives could not attend funerals, weddings were postponed, birthday parties abandoned and gatherings forbidden. It was a gratuitous attack on liberty justified by ministers on grounds that Covid was so dangerous.
Mr Johnson himself said no prime minister wanted to introduce such illiberal measures and was clearly reluctant to do so, judging by the reports we have of the fraught discussions around lockdown planning.
However, having decided that this was the right course of action it was incumbent upon Mr Johnson and his officials to stick to the rules. Not to have done so is an insult to the great majority who scrupulously followed laws that they thought to be daft having been assured they were necessary.
Moreover, since the only possible rationale for the lockdowns was to protect people from the predations of the virus, the very fact that the people who made the rules didn’t follow them suggests they were not necessary. Is it being argued that they placed themselves in mortal danger in order to have a post-work drink? And, if not, why were the rest of us not permitted to do so?
Mr Johnson is fortunate in having political opponents who would have inflicted even tougher rules for longer and cannot, therefore, deploy this line of argument. But they can accuse the Government of having one law for themselves and another for everyone else. If most voters draw that conclusion, it is not only damaging to the Government’s moral authority but potentially calamitous for its election prospects.
This episode has also seriously undermined Mr Johnson’s integrity because he repeatedly assured the Commons that all the rules had been followed. Moreover, since these events happened under his nose in his own home-cum-office he was either being deliberately misleading or was ignorant of his own rules. It is hard to judge which is worse.
The question that Mr Johnson hoped had gone away is also back – whether he has become a drag on his party’s fortunes and is no longer an asset.
Conservative MPs, who a few weeks ago might well have tried to unseat him had the fines been issued then, will be reluctant to do so now at a time of international crisis. Letters from disgruntled backbenchers were sent to the chairman of the Tories’ 1922 committee but failed to reach the 54 needed to trigger a leadership challenge.
Labour may seek a vote of confidence in the Government but they are bound to lose.
At the outset of the pandemic Mr Johnson won a good deal of sympathy not just for having to deal with such a difficult national crisis but also for doing so after recovering from serious illness himself.
The Prime Minister’s supporters say it is time to draw a line under this controversy now that all restrictions have been lifted and the worst of the pandemic seems to be over. It also needs to be put into perspective when set against the horrors unfolding in Ukraine.
But the millions who sacrificed a great deal during the lockdown will not forget or forgive easily. Mr Johnson’s tenure in No 10 may come to be defined by the most damaging political charge that can be brought against any leader, that he considers the law to be for the little people.