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Police fine Britain's Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak for attending parties in lockdown

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

London police have fined British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, the U.K.'s chancellor of the Exchequer. They've been fined an undisclosed amount for attending a party in violation of the government's own COVID lockdown rules. This is the first time police have found that a sitting prime minister broke the law. Johnson addressed the matter briefly today.

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PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: Let me say immediately that I've paid the fine, and I once again offer a full apology.

CHANG: Now, this could threaten Johnson's grip on power. But as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London, the war in Ukraine seems to have bought the prime minister some time.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: When the scandal broke in December, Johnson insisted no one had violated any rules. But when it became increasingly clear that government staff had held at least a dozen parties when such gatherings were banned, many were furious. Here's Douglas Ross, who leads Johnson's Conservative Party in Scotland, speaking back in January.

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DOUGLAS ROSS: If the prime minister or anyone misleads Parliament, you cannot come back from that. That is a resigning matter. It's also breaking the law.

LANGFITT: What a difference several months make. Since then, Russia has invaded Ukraine. Johnson was a tough and early critic of President Vladimir Putin, and his government has sent thousands of anti-tank missiles to Ukraine's army. Today, in a sign of shifting attitudes, Douglas Ross reversed himself on Britain's Sky TV.

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ROSS: I previously called for the prime minister to step down. But since then, we have seen something that I never thought I would see in my lifetime - another war in Europe. All of that, for me, changes the situation.

LANGFITT: Some lawmakers in Johnson's party say switching prime ministers during a war makes little sense, and many praise his handling of the conflict. Ross cited the prime minister's recent trip to Kyiv, where Johnson, dressed in a coat and tie, walked around the city center with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. A local resident even stopped Johnson to thank him for Britain's support.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

LANGFITT: Johnson is also helped by the fact that his main political rival for the prime minister's job, Sunak, is also caught up in the scandal. Katy Balls, the deputy political editor at The Spectator magazine, thinks Johnson will survive for now, but she's waiting to see how his party responds.

KATY BALLS: There are MPs coming out to say they support Boris Johnson, but there's also a lot of MPs who are not tweeting or doing media. And I think this silence is something that is going to lead to nerves in Downing Street over the next few days.

LANGFITT: The political fallout may become clear in early May, when Britons head to the polls for local elections.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.