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Tory peer quits as justice minister over Downing Street partygate breaches

Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Ben Stansall/PA)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Ben Stansall/PA)

Boris Johnson’s battle to remain in power has been hit by the resignation of a justice minister, who warned the scale and nature of breaches of coronavirus rules in Downing Street are inconsistent with the rule of law.

Conservative peer David Wolfson said he had “no option” other than to resign on Wednesday over the “repeated rule-breaking, and breach of the criminal law, in Downing Street”.

The fallout after police fined the Prime Minister and Chancellor Rishi Sunak over a birthday party held for Mr Johnson in No 10 during Covid restrictions in June 2020 was continuing with further calls to quit.

Conservative MPs Nigel Mills and Craig Whittaker said the Prime Minister’s position was untenable after he was found to have broken the rules he set.

However, Mr Johnson’s position was safe for the time being, with politicians away from Parliament for the Easter recess and numerous Tory critics arguing for immediate focus to be on the invasion of Ukraine.

Lord Wolfson, a justice minister since 2020, said in his resignation letter to Mr Johnson that he has come to the “inevitable conclusion that there was repeated rule-breaking, and breaches of the criminal law, in Downing Street”.

He concluded that had no option but to resign considering “my ministerial and professional obligations to support and uphold the rule of law”.

The decision heaped pressure on Dominic Raab, whose Labour shadow Steve Reed pointed out as Justice Secretary is “constitutionally charged with upholding the law but is instead condoning law-breaking” by backing Mr Johnson.

Mr Raab described Lord Wolfson as a “world-class lawyer” whose “wisdom and intellect will be sorely missed” in Government.

Mr Johnson wrote to the peer saying he was “sorry to receive” the resignation, while praising his “years of legal experience”.

Earlier, Mr Mills became the first Tory backbencher to publicly call for Mr Johnson to fall on his sword since the fines landed.

The MP for Amber Valley, in Derbyshire, told the PA news agency Mr Johnson’s position was untenable, saying: “Yeah, I think for a Prime Minister in office to be given a fine and accept it and pay it for breaking the laws that he introduced… is just an impossible position.

“We have every right to expect higher standards of people making these laws… so the idea that he can survive having broken one and accepted he has broken (it), I just think is impossible.”

Mr Whittaker, the MP for West Yorkshire constituency of Calder Valley, called for both the Prime Minister and Mr Sunak to resign in response to questions from voters.

“To be very clear, my personal opinion is that he and the Chancellor both should resign because you can’t set the laws and then break them as they have,” he said in a Facebook video.

But Mr Whittaker said he would not be submitting a letter to the 1922 Committee of backbench Tories, saying he expects the Prime Minister would win the vote which he argued would distract the Ukraine and cost-of-living crises.

Both Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak have indicated they would not consider resigning over the fixed penalty notices issued by Scotland Yard.

Welsh Secretary Simon Hart indicated the Prime Minister would not resign even if he was fined multiple times in the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Hillman probe.

Mr Johnson has not ruled out the prospect he could be fined again for further events, reportedly having attended six of the 12 under investigation.

Mr Hart told Times Radio: “I don’t necessarily see the difference between one or two (fines), for example, the principle is the same.

“I personally don’t think that for people in public life – or any other walk of life, for that matter – that should necessarily be accompanied by another penalty, which is the removal of your job or similar.”

Both Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak – and the Prime Minister’s wife Carrie, who was also fined over the party in the Cabinet Room – apologised on Tuesday and confirmed they had paid the fines.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps defended the Prime Minister on Wednesday morning, insisting he made a mistake and did not knowingly break the law.

On whether Mr Johnson misled MPs with his earlier defences against allegations of rule-breaking, Mr Shapps told ITV’s Good Morning Britain programme: “I don’t think he knowingly broke the laws when he came to Parliament.

“We now know that the Metropolitan Police have said that he shouldn’t have stepped into the Cabinet Room when staff had organised a surprise.

“I don’t think he came to Parliament thinking that that breached the rules.”

Other Tory MPs and Cabinet ministers have also shown their support for the Prime Minister, pointing to his support for Ukraine in response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

One who was publicly quiet over the scandal was Home Secretary Priti Patel, but a Home Office source said Mr Johnson has her “full support”.

It was argued it was difficult for Home Office ministers to comment on ongoing police investigations.

Post-Brexit fishing rights
Lord David Frost (Peter Byrne/PA)

Meanwhile, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP have continued to back calls for the Commons to be recalled from its two-week Easter break to allow the Prime Minister to “tender his resignation” in person to MPs.

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak do not seem to understand how “deeply offensive” their lockdown breaches are.

More than 50 fines have been referred to the Acro Criminal Records Office since the Met’s inquiry started.

Speaking to broadcasters at his country residence, Chequers, on Tuesday, Mr Johnson said it “did not occur” to him at the time that the party for which he was fined might be breaching Covid rules.

Mr Sunak offered an “unreserved apology”, saying he understood that “for figures in public office, the rules must be applied stringently in order to maintain public confidence”.

A spokesperson for Mrs Johnson said: “Whilst she believed that she was acting in accordance with the rules at the time, Mrs Johnson accepts the Metropolitan Police’s findings and apologises unreservedly.”