Rishi Sunak offers unreserved apology, pays 'partygate' fine; UK PM rejects calls to resign

The Indian-origin finance minister offered the apology in a statement issued on Tuesday evening, after Johnson's own apology and confirmation that he too had paid up his fine.

Published: 14th April 2022 09:46 AM  |   Last Updated: 14th April 2022 09:46 AM   |  A+A-

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, centre, Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, right, and Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care speak together. (Photo | AP)

By PTI

LONDON: UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak has offered an "unreserved apology" and paid the fine imposed on him by Scotland Yard for breaching COVID lockdown rules in June 2020, when he attended a birthday party at Downing Street for his boss, Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The Indian-origin finance minister offered the apology in a statement issued on Tuesday evening, after Johnson's own apology and confirmation that he too had paid up his fine.

The so-called partygate scandal, of around 12 parties being held at Downing Street and other UK government offices in Whitehall in breach of coronavirus legislation in place during 2020-2021, has been under police investigation as part of Operation Hillman.

"I can confirm I have received a fixed penalty notice from the Metropolitan Police with regards to a gathering held on June 19 in Downing Street," Sunak said in his statement.

"I offer an unreserved apology," the 41-year-old minister said.

"I understand that for figures in public office, the rules must be applied stringently in order to maintain public confidence. I respect the decision that has been made and have paid the fine. I respect the decision that has been made and have paid the fine," he said.

The partygate saga comes at the end of a particularly tough few days for Sunak's role as Chancellor, after he faced allegations of allegedly improper tax savings by his Indian wife Akshata Murty and his own US Green Card status while in a high political office in Britain.

Murty, the daughter of Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy, has since issued a statement to say she will now choose to pay all her taxes in the UK to avoid her legally permitted non-domicile tax status becoming a distraction for her minister husband.

Sunak, meanwhile, has referred himself to the government's independent watchdog to confirm that he made all the legally required ministerial declarations of his financial affairs.

While the Opposition has demanded the resignation of the two senior-most government officials for breaking the law with partygate, both Johnson and Sunak have insisted that they intend to get on with their jobs.

"Like the Prime Minister, I am focussed on delivering for the British people at this challenging time," said Sunak.

The UK Cabinet ministers and Conservative MPs have largely rallied around the duo, as a leadership contest is not seen as ideal in the midst of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the severe cost of living crisis domestically.

UK Home Secretary Priti Patel became the latest high-ranking Cabinet minister to come out in support of her colleagues on Thursday.

Nigel Mills is currently the only Tory MP from the government known to have said publicly that Johnson should go, telling the BBC: "I don't think his position is tenable."

But the Opposition parties accused Johnson and Sunak of lying to the public about their attendance at the Downing Street gathering, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and the first ministers of Scotland and Wales demanding they step down.

Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner tweeted: "You made the rules. You broke your own law. Just go."

Earlier on Tuesday, in a video statement from his Chequers residence, Johnson said: "In all frankness, at that time it did not occur to me that this might have been a breach of the rules. But, of course, the police have found otherwise and I fully respect the outcome of their investigation."

His wife, Carrie Johnson, also apologised “unreservedly” after confirming that she had received and paid up a fine for the same Cabinet Room party at Downing Street, to which she had brought a cake to surprise her husband on his birthday on June 19, 2020.

It has led to Johnson becoming the first UK Prime Minister to be sanctioned for breaking the law.

It is expected that the Johnsons and Sunak would have most likely been handed a 200 pounds fixed penalty notice each, which is a sanction similar to a parking ticket.

Unless it is challenged, there is no court process involved after the fine imposed is paid up.

Reports of parties being held at Downing Street during the coronavirus lockdowns that limited such gatherings to control the spread of the deadly virus first emerged in December 2021.

Both Johnson and Sunak had said at the time that they did not attend any parties.

However, as revelations of several gatherings emerged, the UK prime minister ordered an inquiry into the allegations of rule-breaking, led by senior civil servant Sue Gray, and was also forced to apologise in Parliament over the reports of lockdown breaches.

Gray passed on information to the Met Police at the end of her inquiry, which found some wrongdoing, and Operation Hillman was launched earlier this year.

The complete Sue Gray report will not be released until the Met Police have concluded their investigation, which is when Johnson is also committed to make a statement to the House of Commons.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has refused to resign after being fined for breaking his government's pandemic lockdown rules, saying he would instead redouble his efforts to strengthen the economy and combat Russian aggression in Ukraine.

London police fined Johnson and other people Tuesday for attending a birthday party thrown for the prime minister at his Downing Street offices on June 19, 2020.

The penalty made Johnson the first British prime minister ever found to have broken the law while in office.

Gatherings of more than two people were banned in Britain at the time of the birthday party to curb the spread of COVID-19.

"I understand the anger that many will feel that I, myself, fell short when it came to observing the very rules which the government I lead had introduced to protect the public. And I accept in all sincerity that people had the right to expect better," Johnson said late Tuesday.

"And now I feel an even greater sense of obligation to deliver on the priorities of the British people."

The fine followed a police investigation and months of questions about lockdown-breaking parties at government offices, which Johnson had tried to bat away by saying there were no parties and that he believed no rules were broken.

Opposition lawmakers demanded Johnson's resignation, arguing the fines given to him and Treasury chief Rishi Sunak were evidence of "criminality" at the heart of government.

The opposition argued that the Downing Street gathering demonstrated that Johnson and his supporters believed the rules don't apply to them.

On Wednesday, a Conservative member of the House of Lords resigned from his role as justice minister, criticizing "repeated rule-breaking and breaches of criminal law in Downing Street."

"It is not just a question of what happened in Downing Street, or your own conduct," David Wolfson wrote in a letter to Johnson.

"It is also, and perhaps more so, the official response to what took place."

While the "partygate" scandal poses a threat to Johnson's government, the world has changed tremendously since the first reports of the parties surfaced late last year.

Johnson has been a leading figure in marshaling international opposition to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and Britain is facing its worst cost-of-living crisis since the 1950s.

His supporters are already arguing that whatever the prime minister may have done wrong, now is not time for a leadership contest.

That his Treasury chief also received an undermining fine helps Johnson, since Sunak had been seen as the leading Conservative candidate to succeed Johnson.

But Johnson still faces the possibility of additional fines.

He is reported to have attended three other gatherings that the Metropolitan Police Service is still investigating.

He will also have to answer questions about whether he knowingly misled Parliament with his previous statements about the parties, said Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government in London.

"Governments have to realize that they can't just make laws and then skirt around them and rationalize themselves that it's all OK because they're very important people working at the center of government," Rutter said.



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