Boris Johnson being fined for breaking the coronavirus rules he set is similar to former ministers receiving speeding tickets, a Cabinet minister appeared to suggest.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said other ministers, including former prime minister Sir Tony Blair, had received fixed-penalty notices (FPN) and remained in office.
It comes as the Prime Minister prepares, according to the Daily Telegraph, to make a “full-throated apology” to MPs after paying a fine issued by police for attending a birthday bash in breach of Covid laws.
Mr Johnson, along with his wife Carrie Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak, were fined by the Metropolitan Police for attending a birthday party thrown in his honour in the Cabinet room in June 2020, while coronavirus restrictions were in place.
Mr Lewis told Sky News the Prime Minister was not the first No 10 incumbent to receive a penalty for a legal infringement.
“I think we do see consistently, whether it is through parking fines or speeding fines, ministers of both parties over the years have been in that position,” said the former Conservative Party chairman.
“We’ve had prime ministers in the past who have received penalty notices, from what I can see, and also front bench ministers.
“I saw there was a parking notice that Tony Blair had once. We’ve seen front bench Labour ministers and, let’s be frank, Government ministers as well.”
He added: “You’ve asked me, can someone who sets the laws and the rules, can they also be someone who breaks the rules?
“That clearly has happened with a number of ministers over the years.”
Questioned about his choice of response on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Lewis replied: “I’m not in any way trying to equate a speeding ticket with the sacrifices people have made through Covid.”
Senior opposition MPs said there was a “massive difference” between a Covid FPN and a speeding ticket.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions, told ITV’s Lorraine programme: “I have never had anybody break down in front of me because they couldn’t drive at 35mph in a 30mph zone; I have had no end of people in tears – in real bits – about complying with rules that really, really hurt them.”
Sir Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said the Northern Ireland Secretary’s response was an “insult to bereaved families and all those who made huge sacrifices while Johnson partied”.
Ridiculous pathetic Defence even if true. Which it isn’t. From the moment TB became PM he wasn’t allowed to drive a car by his security people. You’d have thought a N Ireland Sec might know that. https://t.co/VIFYUWlAaJ— ALASTAIR CAMPBELL (@campbellclaret) April 19, 2022
Sir Tony’s former Downing Street press secretary, Alastair Campbell, labelled the defence “pathetic” and said Mr Lewis had his facts wrong.
“From the moment TB became PM, he wasn’t allowed to drive a car by his security people,” he tweeted.
“You’d have thought a Northern Ireland Secretary might know that.”
The Prime Minister is due to address the Commons on Tuesday as he attempts to convince his critics there are bigger issues to focus on than the partygate saga.
It is thought he will apologise for the rule breaching but emphasise the need to deal with the crisis in Ukraine and unlawful migration.
Mr Johnson will face pressure to address criticisms that he misled Parliament – an offence traditionally seen as a resigning matter for ministers – in previous statements about rule-breaking in No 10, during which he argued Covid guidance had been followed at all times.
Labour shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry confirmed “there are ongoing discussions” between the opposition parties and Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle amid suggestions a censure motion is being pushed for over claims the Prime Minister was not entirely up-front with MPs.
Defending the Prime Minister, Mr Lewis said the Conservative Party leader had in the past given updates to MPs that he “believed to be the truth”.
Asked whether Mr Johnson accepted that he broke the rules, Mr Lewis replied: “In the sense that he has paid a fine that the police have decided to issue because the rules were broken.
“But that doesn’t mean that anything he said to Parliament was inaccurate at the time.
“What he said to Parliament he believed to be true at the time.”
Conservatives are divided over whether Mr Johnson should face a vote on his future following his receipt of an FPN.
Former defence minister Tobias Ellwood said the Ukraine war should not be used as a “fig leaf” to distract from the issue, raising the prospect of further fines for the Conservative Party leader as Scotland Yard’s inquiry progresses.
The chairman of the Defence Committee told BBC Breakfast there were “many MPs” who were “very concerned by where we’re going” and argued that Mr Johnson should call a confidence vote.
“We have to defend this at the next general election,” he said.
“We’ve got some more fixed penalty notices likely to come forward, Sue Gray’s report to conclude, and, of course, those important local elections on May 5.
“If I was the Prime Minister, I would show leadership here… and say that ‘these are difficult times, I will give you the opportunity to support me through an actual vote of confidence’.”
But Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbench MPs, said it was “certainly not in the country’s interests to think about replacing the Prime Minister”, given the “blood war” in eastern Europe and the ongoing cost-of-living crisis.
Sir Geoffrey said he wanted to see “all the evidence”, which would include whether more fines are issued, the full publication of senior civil servant Sue Gray’s report into the party claims and what verdict the British people give in the local government elections.