PUBLIC life and discourse are being corrupted, bishops have warned, as the Prime Minister ignored calls to resign this week after being fined by police for breaching lockdown rules.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Boris Johnson said that it had not occurred to him at the time or subsequently that attending a “gathering” in the Cabinet room during the first national lockdown in June 2020 could amount to a breach of the rules. “That was my mistake, and I apologise for it unreservedly.”
His behaviour had given him “an even greater sense of obligation to deliver on the priorities of the British people”, he said.
Responding, Sir Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, called Mr Johnson’s apology “mealy-mouthed” and said that his refusal to resign marked him out as a “man without shame”.
“The damage is already done,” he told MPs. “The public have made up their mind: they don’t believe a word the Prime Minister says.”
Mr Starmer was censured by the Speaker for describing Mr Johnson as “dishonest”. He agreed to withdraw the remark, saying: “The Prime Minister knows what he is.”
Mr Johnson has been under pressure from opposition parties since he, his wife, and the Chancellor were issued £50 fixed-penalty notices by the Metropolitan Police on Tuesday of last week for violating Covid-19 lockdown rules. He apologised then and said that the fine had been paid.
The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, said on Maundy Thursday: “If breaking the laws you have made, and then lying about it, does not require resignation, then what does? Our public life and discourse are being corrupted. Integrity is essential to public life.”
In a sermon preached in Chichester Cathedral on Easter Day, the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, said: “These laws are not simply a set of rules. . . The law binds us to each other in public bonds of honour and respect. They are to be applied by the judiciary to all people equally. This is easier said than done, but it is how we attempt to sustain truth and justice, irrespective of status, wealth, and power.”
The Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, suggested that the Prime Minister should consider his position. In a Twitter post on Tuesday of last week, he wrote: “Don’t know about you but I think if I had been found guilty and fined for breaking lockdown rules I would have felt the need to offer my resignation.”
Canon James Walters, Chaplain of the London School of Economics (LSE) and a professor in the university’s department for international relations, remarked on Twitter on Wednesday of last week: “When it’s okay for a Prime Minister to be found to have broken the law but stay in office we have crossed the Rubicon. This is a profound degeneration of British political life.”
Asked later, Canon Walters said: “We have never before had a British Prime Minister found to be in breach of the law. . . It is perfectly obvious that this will diminish respect for the rule of law among ordinary citizens of this country.”
Canon Walters, who founded the LSE Faith Centre, continued: “But my concern is as much about the international order which is currently in a very precarious state. Authoritarian regimes have normalised untruthfulness and flagrantly violate the rule of law, both domestic and international. . .
“It is essential for global security and freedom that we defend these principles. How can we do so if our own leaders see themselves as above them?”
On Thursday, MPs will vote on whether Mr Johnson should be investigated for misleading Parliament through previous statements denying that he was present at any Downing Street parties.
Read more on the story in this week’s leader comment