Boris Johnson and his deputy prime minister Dominic Raab were on Wednesday at odds over whether government officials fined for attending Whitehall parties during coronavirus lockdowns have broken the law.
Raab, who is also justice secretary, said that “inevitably” the 20 fines issued to people by the Metropolitan Police in the so-called partygate scandal meant that those receiving them had broken lockdown law.
Number 10 repeatedly refused on Wednesday to accept that the issuance of the fixed-penalty notices meant that a crime had been committed.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labour party leader, claimed at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons that the fines issued by the Met were evidence of “widespread criminality”.
Raab earlier told Sky News: “Yes, inevitably fixed-penalty notices are for those who have breached the regulations.”
Asked whether Johnson disagreed with Raab, a spokesperson for the prime minister said it was right to wait until the Met had concluded its investigation into government parties held in Downing Street and Whitehall in 2020 and 2021 during Covid restrictions.
Pressed as to why Raab, who is in charge of the justice system, was able to say the law had been broken, the spokesperson said: “It would not be right to give the prime minister’s view in the middle of a Met police investigation.”
Individuals who are issued with fixed-penalty notices are not deemed to have broken the law until the fines are paid. Some may seek to appeal against the penalties, although there is no formal mechanism for doing so.
Downing Street said Johnson had not so far been issued with a fixed-penalty notice. The prime minister attended several parties held during Covid-19 restrictions, including a “bring your own booze” event in the Downing Street garden in May 2020.
Johnson told the House of Commons liaison committee that it would be well known if he had received a fine. “I’m sure you would know if I were,” he said.
Starmer claimed that Johnson had misled the Commons over what he knew about parties in Downing Street.
He said this was a breach of the ministerial code, which also says that government members who mislead the Commons should resign. “Why’s he still here?” asked Starmer.
Johnson told the liaison committee that he had been “as clear as I can” with MPs, adding that he would not give a running commentary on the police investigation.
The full details of an inquiry into the government parties held during Covid-19 restrictions by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, will be published at the end of the Met probe.
Although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has diverted attention from the scandal, some Tory MPs believe it could pose a threat to Johnson’s leadership.
A total of 54 Conservative MPs must submit letters requesting a vote of no confidence in Johnson to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee of backbench Conservatives, for one to happen.
Local elections on May 5 will give voters a chance to record their views on the affair.