UK's Johnson did not break COVID laws 'with malice', minister says

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LONDON, April 13 (Reuters) - A senior British minister said on Wednesday that Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not set out to break COVID laws with malice and is mortified after he was fined by police for attending a gathering during lockdown, as calls mounted for Johnson to quit.

Johnson, his wife Carrie and finance minister Rishi Sunak were fined on Tuesday for breaching laws the government imposed to curb the coronavirus, drawing a wave of condemnation, including from the families of those who died alone during the pandemic.

Senior ministers have rallied round Johnson while a number of previous critics in his Conservative Party have said now was not the time for a change in leadership given the war in Ukraine. read more

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However, David Wolfson, a junior justice minister, did resign on Wednesday, saying "recent disclosures lead to the inevitable conclusion that there was repeated rule-breaking, and breaches of the criminal law".

The prime minister initially told parliament that no parties took place. But police are investigating 12 gatherings after an internal inquiry found his staff had enjoyed alcohol-fuelled parties when social mixing was all but banned in Britain.

Johnson, whose received the 50-pound fixed penalty notice over a gathering on his birthday in June 2020, has since said he attended some of the events, raising the prospect that he could face further fines.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported late on Wednesday that Johnson faced a second fine for attending a leaving party for his former director of communications, Lee Cain.

"The event that took place on Nov, 13, 2020, to mark the departure of Lee Cain is considered to be the most serious breach of the coronavirus regulations among the events that the prime minister attended," an unnamed source close to the police investigation told the newspaper.

Johnson said on Tuesday that it had not occurred to him that he was in breach of the rules, rejecting calls for his resignation.

Transport minister Grant Shapps said Johnson had not meant to mislead.

"I'm not saying that the prime minister isn't a flawed individual. We're all flawed in different ways," Shapps told Sky News. "The question is did somebody set out to do these things with malice?"

Johnson won a landslide election in 2019 on a promise to complete Britain's exit from the European Union, but his premiership has been marked by a series of dramatic events, from suspending parliament over a Brexit impasse and his own experience of COVID.

His fine is believed to represent the first time a British leader has been found to have broken the law while in office.

Sunak, a former banker who became chancellor on the eve of the pandemic, took seven hours to release a statement in which he apologised, prompting a report in the Times newspaper that he had considered quitting.

Some Conservative lawmakers still said Johnson should go.

"I don't think the PM can survive or should survive breaking the rules he put in place," one, Nigel Mills, told the BBC. "He's been fined, I don't think his position is tenable."

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Reporting by Kate Holton, Michael Holden and Muvija M; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Elaine Hardcastle and Grant McCool

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