Wait for Partygate penalty splits faithful Bournemouth's loyalty to Boris Johnson

Metropolitan police decision on British prime minister looms as a moment of truth

An aerial view of Bournemouth beach and town centre. Alamy
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Boris Johnson is just days away from learning if he faces police action over the Downing Street parties held in defiance of the Coronavirus lockdown rules and a reignition of the political crisis that came perilously close to breaking his grip on power.

If the British prime minister is found to have broken the coronavirus rules the punishment could well go beyond a £100 fixed penalty notice. And whether he remains or resigns will be largely down to public opinion.

To test that opinion, The National visited the southern English coastal resort town of Bournemouth. Its voters are almost as divided over Mr Johnson’s fate as its two Conservative MPs.

Conor Burns, MP for Bournemouth West, Minister of State for Northern Ireland and an unapologetic defender of Mr Johnson, said the leader has done no wrong.

Tobias Ellwood, MP for Bournemouth East, has put in a letter of no confidence in Mr Johnson’s leadership calling for him to resign.

Some of Mr Ellwood's constituents are a little more forgiving — or at least more pragmatic — than those in his party.

“I think Boris will hang on as long as he can and if he can get through the next few weeks he’ll probably get away with it,” said retired banker Phil Baker, referring to Mr Johnson’s reliance on public amnesia that allows his political misdemeanours to seemingly slip away.

Mr Burns defended Mr Johnson following the Partygate scandal. “He’s a man of his word,” the former trade minister told BBC Panorama. “A man who has got a vision for this country … a man of integrity, a man of decency.”

Mr Burns rejected any notion that the prime minister should resign, even if he is fined by the police for breaking lockdown rules.

That contrasted with his constituent Emma Watkins, 41, who sat in the sunshine a stone’s throw from East Overcliff Drive, the border with the Bournemouth East constituency.

“He isn’t doing a very good job, he’s a hypocrite and he’s not followed his own rules,” said Ms Watkins, an accountant.

“How competent can you be when you’re hosting your own lockdown parties? How can you make important decisions?

“He should already have resigned because he made a major mistake. We were all making sacrifices at the time, but he had these parties not just once but several times.”

Those views would be supported by Mr Ellwood, the former defence minister who this month became the 11th MP to publicly submit a letter of no confidence in the prime minister.

“Ultimately, we have to recognise what is in the best interests of the country,” he said. If Mr Johnson did not call a vote on his leadership Britain “will invariably slide towards a very ugly place”.

But the MP’s view is not yet reflected by enough of his colleagues — 54 letters are required to trigger a vote of confidence — nor it seems by all of his constituents.

“Clearly Boris cannot make the rules then not follow them, but at the same time loads of people were having their own little parties,” said student Tom Hall as he prepared to surf Bournemouth’s waves.

“It’s really not that much of big deal, I mean some of it was on Zoom, how many people had drinks parties like that?” said the 24-year-old, who is studying sports science.

“We have got to the point post-pandemic that everything is carrying on as normal, so we need to crack on with what’s important rather than worry about parties.”

Those in Downing Street will be hoping that Mr Hall’s views will be reflected around Britain when the Metropolitan Police examine Mr Johnson’s questionnaire responses this week.

The crunch will come if he receives a £100 fixed penalty fine for breaking the rules. That would probably take MP's letters to the 54 mark.

Is a leadership contest something the governing Conservatives need as Britain recovers from the coronavirus pandemic and deals with persistent Brexit and geopolitical issues?

“No, I don’t think Boris should resign, we should give him a bit more time,” said floorer Dale Forbes, 50, who was helping to refurbish Bournemouth pier’s Aruba Amusements.

“Who’s going to replace him and start from the beginning?”

Mr Forbes echoed Mr Hall's view that it was not just Downing Street that fudged the rules.

“Obviously they're in the public eye, but everyone you speak to … no one followed the rules to the letter,” he said with a grin. “It's just a fact that Downing Street got caught out in public.”

With 20,000 students at Bournemouth University, the allure of the seaside and bustling student accommodation inevitably led to some lockdown breaches.

Even the retired, who make up a large part of the city’s 510,000 population, believe there could be some nuance to interpreting the rules.

“It depends on what sort of party it was,” said retired printer Tony Dando, 80. “If he did break the rules maybe he should resign. But I think he did pretty well in the pandemic, although he’s alienated quite a few people.”

Ms Watkins reflected the views of some who could not see an alternative to Mr Johnson.

“Sadly, there is no one strong to replace him. That’s why the other MPs are not voting him out. But I do fancy that Rishi [Sunak — Chancellor of the Exchequer] as prime minister. He looks like a nice, confident chap and says the right things.”

Mr Baker was also in agreement — about Mr Johnson. “I don’t think that there is currently anyone better than Boris and there is a lot of needless political manoeuvring going on,” he said.

“There are too many other important things going on in the international situation to make this of too much concern.

“In the old days, he'd have gone a long time ago but today nobody resigns, nobody takes responsibility,” he said with a sigh.

For Sudanese asylum seeker Mosa Abdalla, 21, the political situation in the UK is plain for someone who escaped civil war in Darfur five years ago.

“There was a lockdown and you should obey the rules,” he said. “If you do break the rules then you won’t be trusted.”

Neve Collard, 20, is possibly not the type of person Mr Johnson would like to cross paths with. The forensic investigation student intends to join the police, using her degree to investigate crimes, online and offline.

“It's awful that he told the country to do one thing and then just decided to go against it. But I also think it's awful that whoever took the pictures didn't release them sooner,” she said. “But just because Mr Johnson’s the prime minister doesn't mean he should get away with it.”

Mr Johnson might feel more comfortable in the company of Nicole Way, 44, a self-taught vegan chef.

“Part of my ethics and values is that I don't get involved in the political side,” she said firmly.

Pressed on the Partygate scandal, she said: “When you're in a leadership role and in authority, you really need to be setting an example.”

The views from Bournemouth and elsewhere in Britain will be closely examined by Conservative MPs in the coming days to see if they should make an example of their leader.

Updated: February 22, 2022, 7:38 AM