Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, and his next-door neighbor Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer, have both been fined by London’s police for attending parties during one of the UK’s coronavirus lockdowns—under strict rules they themselves drafted and enforced on the general public—the government confirmed today.
The fines are a huge embarrassment.
Johnson originally denied attending any parties, but details have been emerging for months of multiple gatherings held at his residence, Number 10 Downing Street, and in other government offices, during the UK’s most strict lockdown period which came into force in March 2020, with several different phases in the subsequent two years.
Inevitably, Johnson has been called on to resign. No other British prime minister in the modern era has been punished for breaking the law, however minor the offense, either because they didn’t do so or—perhaps more likely—because they weren’t held to account for it. But with CEOs often now brought down by their actions, today’s fines are another indication that major public figures can no longer so easily flout rules with impunity.
During the strictest period in the UK most people were not allowed to leave their homes for any reason other than an hour of daily exercise, and all non-essential gatherings—including weddings and funerals—were banned.
At one Downing Street party on April 16, 2021, eyewitnesses said that around 30 revelers danced and drank at No.10 until late in the night. The next day, the Queen was pictured sitting alone in Westminster Abbey to mourn the death of her husband Prince Philip, because gatherings were still illegal. The photo has been used as evidence against the government ever since.
One partygoer even took a wheeled suitcase to a local shop so that they could bring back enough alcohol for all the guests, an attendee said.
Heads of state, and company leaders, have historically seemed to be above the law, their private rule-breaking covered up by cohorts of willing assistants, while law enforcement turns a blind eye. But it seems the public, investors, and shareholders, are increasingly unhappy about rules that apply to “ordinary people” being broken those with money, power, or influence.
As Forbes noted in 2019, after four CEOs lost their jobs in just one week, “The days of imperious, dictatorial CEOs who rule by fear and intimidation, backed by board of directors packed with ‘yes men’ and cronies, may be soon over.”
Whether Johnson and Sunak’s time in power will end now is still in question. The leader of the UK opposition, Keir Starmer, immediately called for Johnson’s resignation.
Their culpability, however, is not in question. Both men partied during a lockdown they themselves decided to impose, and have been fined using a mechanism they themselves signed off. The irony isn’t lost on the British people and it’s unlikely that Johnson and Sunak paying small fines will appease the anger of those who went through the pain of isolation while the country’s leaders spared themselves that hardship.