Boris Johnson is finalising his legal defence as he prepares to face the inquiry this week investigating claims he deliberately misled MPs about illegal lockdown parties in Downing Street.
The appearance in front of the House of Commons privileges committee on Wednesday could be a pivotal moment in the political career of the former UK prime minister, who was forced out of office last summer by the resignations of dozens of ministers following multiple scandals under his premiership.
The cross-party committee of MPs will grill him over his claim in parliament that no rules had been broken at gatherings in Downing Street and Whitehall during Covid-19 restrictions in 2020 and 2021, that became known as the “partygate” scandal.
If the committee finds Johnson misled the Commons he could face a vote on whether he should be held in contempt of parliament and a possible suspension as an MP. A suspension of more than 10 days would allow voters in his constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip to start a petition to trigger a parliamentary by-election.
On Sunday, Oliver Dowden, the minister in charge of the cabinet office, confirmed that Tory MPs would not be whipped to vote should Johnson face a contempt vote. “With House [of Commons’] matters it’s standard procedure not to whip the vote,” he said. “I’m sure Boris Johnson will provide a robust defence.”
In an interim report, the privileges committee concluded the evidence strongly suggested that breaches of coronavirus rules would have been obvious to the then prime minister.
The report issued earlier this month suggested the Commons may have been misled on four occasions by Johnson — including in December 2021 when he told parliamentarians that he had “relied upon repeated assurances that the rules had not been broken”.
It added: “There is evidence that those who were advising Mr Johnson about what to say to the press and in the House were themselves struggling to contend that some gatherings were within the rules.”
But Johnson’s legal team is expected to argue that Johnson’s advisers told him shortly before he spoke in parliament that no Covid rules had been broken in Number 10. “When ministers go into the Commons, they are basically just reading out what they have been briefed to say,” one ally told the Sunday Telegraph.
The team is also set to argue that the official Downing Street photographer took snaps of some of the gatherings because no one thought they were breaking the rules. Johnson’s defence will be submitted to the committee ahead of Monday’s deadline and will be published on Wednesday.
Thangam Debbonaire, shadow leader of the House of Commons, said on Sunday: “Boris Johnson’s attempts to discredit the inquiry shows the utter disdain he has for standards in public life. It’s vital that this well-respected committee, a majority of whom are Tory MPs, can carry out their evidence session without intimidation.”
Johnson and current prime minister Rishi Sunak were among 83 people issued with 126 fines for Covid law breaches linked to eight different parties.
The privileges committee found in its interim report that Johnson had seen press office gatherings on his way to the flat above Number 10 and had occasionally joined them, according to witnesses.
Johnson has criticised the fact that the inquiry is using evidence from Sue Gray, a senior civil servant who investigated the partygate affair — and this month quit to become chief of staff to Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader.
Source: Financial Times