13 April 2022

From ‘leading statesman’ to Pinocchio – how the papers covered partygate fines

13 April 2022

Boris Johnson is the first sitting prime minister to be found to have broken the law, after it emerged he was hit with a partygate fine alongside wife Carrie and Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

He apologised but refused to quit, prompting a mixed response from the public and the press.

From “world-leading statesman” to Pinocchio, the papers’ reporting on the Prime Minister and the Chancellor has been predictably varied.

Mr and Mrs Johnson and Mr Sunak apologised on Tuesday and confirmed they had paid fines imposed by the Metropolitan Police over a party held on June 19 2020 to mark the Prime Minister’s 56th birthday.

Speaking to broadcasters at Chequers, Mr Johnson said it “did not occur” to him that the gathering might be breaching Covid rules, while Mr Sunak said he understood that “for figures in public office, the rules must be applied stringently in order to maintain public confidence”.

As recently as Sunday, newspaper front pages were filled with images of Mr Johnson parading through Kyiv with President Volodymyr Zelensky – a so-called “lifesaver” for the UK premier’s career after the partygate scandal, according to the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday.

The paper said Mr Johnson “appeared to have weathered the initial storm as three leading MPs who had previously called for his resignation said now was not the right time to remove him”.

But it added that he remains far from out of the “danger zone – with potential catastrophic local elections just around the corner” and questions still to face over whether he misled the Commons when he denied there was any rule-breaking at No 10.

The Guardian said his position “remains in peril” as further lockdown-busting parties could emerge in the weeks to come as police continue their investigation. The paper also printed a timeline of the PM’s denials throughout the scandal, highlighting a statement he made on December 13: “I certainly broke no rules.”

The Daily Mail took a defensive approach on the party, highlighting that the “cake never left its Tupperware box”, and criticised “the Left” as it “howls for resignations”, asking: “Don’t they know there’s a war on?”

The paper said ousting Mr Johnson during the Ukraine crisis would be a mistake and continued to draw attention to the details of the “10-minute party”, which was “far from a raucous occasion” and the Prime Minister “had only salad”.

The Daily Mirror was less sympathetic, plastering “Led by liars & lawbreakers” on its front page, and saying: “Shameless Mr Johnson snubbed pleas for him to go, instead offering a half-hearted apology in a desperate bid to move on from the scandal.”

The Independent’s front page led with a picture of 10 Downing Street, captioned “scene of the crime”.

Other papers focused on Mr Johnson’s apology.

The Sun emphasised the Prime Minister and the Chancellor’s remorse over the rule-breaking at No 10, with the paper claiming unnamed “pals” of Mr Sunak had to talk him out of quitting after a “wobble”.

Carrie Johnson and Rishi Sunak (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Archive)

The Times carried a report from an unnamed source that the Chancellor “was on the brink of quitting in the hours after he received notice of the fine”. After more than seven hours of public silence, he instead made an “unreserved apology” and said he was “focused on delivering for the British people”.

The paper stressed that the reputation of the Prime Minister and the Government had been “severely damaged” and they had a “mountain to climb” to win back public trust.

Several papers including The i and The Times referred to a YouGov poll conducted on Tuesday which found that 57% of British adults believed the pair should quit, while 75% said Mr Johnson lied.

The Daily Express also carried the Prime Minister’s apology on its front page, adding that calls for him to resign continue from members of the Opposition rather than Tory colleagues.

It also said the long delay in the police investigation had not only “weakened the force of the explosion” but also allowed the Prime Minister to “rebuild some of his shattered authority”.

The Metro dubbed the saga “Partygate Shame”. It added: “The lockdown-busting events and countless denials that took place has sparked huge public anger in recent months, with people furious that those who made the rules did not obey them and then lied about it.”

The Daily Star did not pull any punches, depicting Mr Sunak and Mr Johnson as Pinocchio on its front page. Their leading pun summarised their position as: “We’ve suspected for a long time that Bozo Johnson must be in the employ of Burger King. He just loves serving up Whoppers”.

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