Boris Johnson has repeatedly insisted he did not intentionally mislead parliament about the party’s gate in a heated grilling by MPs.
The former prime minister began the three-hour marathon session with a Bible in hand, swearing: “Hand on my heart, I have not lied to the assembly.”
He admitted social distancing was not “ideal” at gatherings in Downing Street during the Covid lockdowns.
But he said they were “essential” work events, which he claimed were permissible.
Insist that the Guidelines – as he understands them – are followed at all times.
But MPs challenged his assertions, and the committee’s chairwoman, Harriet Harman of Labour, at one point called them “flimsy”, saying it “didn’t amount to much at all”.
He also repeatedly clashed with Tory MP Sir Bernard Jenkin, angrily telling the Tory chairman he was talking “total rubbish” by suggesting he relied too much on what political advisers told him.
The Privileges Committee is investigating statements Mr Johnson made to Parliament, after details of alcohol-fuelled parties and other Downing Street gatherings emerged in the media from the end of 2021 onwards.
If MPs find he has knowingly or recklessly misled Parliament, he faces suspension from the House of Commons – a move that could lead to by-elections in his constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
Johnson, who had legal counsel at his side, and his supporters, including former government minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, were in a hostile mood as he took MPs’ questions in the long-awaited session.
The main thrust of his argument was that the loud gatherings in Downing Street and staff leaving Dos were “essential” work events, which he believed were in line with Covid guidelines in place at the time.
Showing a photo of himself surrounded by colleagues and drinking as he walked away, Johnson said No. 10 employees could not have an “invisible electrified fence around them”.
“They will occasionally drift into each other’s orbit,” he said, accepting that “perfect social distancing is not being observed” in the photo but denying it was a breach of the guidelines.
“I think it was absolutely necessary for business purposes,” he said of the event to outgoing communications director Lee Cain in November 2020.
“We were following the guidelines as best we could – which the guidelines provided.”
This was the event he had in mind on December 1, 2021, when he told MPs that all guidelines had been followed, he told Sir Bernard.
“I am obliged to say,” said Sir Bernard, “that if you had said it all at that time to the House of Commons, we probably would not sit here. But you did not.”
Asked later in the session if he should have made these arguments at the time, Conservative MP Andy Carter said: “Maybe if I made it clearer what I meant – and what I felt and believed about following the guidelines – it would have helped.”
Other key moments included:
- Mr Johnson said the process used to decide whether he despised Parliament was “manifestly unfair” and claimed MPs had “found nothing to show I had been forewarned that the events at Number 10 were unlawful”.
- Ms Harman dismissed allegations of bias, saying MPs would leave their “partisan interests at the committee’s door”, amid claims by Johnson supporters that it is a “kangaroo court”.
- Mr Johnson said that if it was “obvious” that there was a breach of the rules at Number 10, as the panel argued, it would also be “obvious” to others, including current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Asked if he would tell other organisations, if asked at a government press conference about the pandemic, whether they could hold “socially distanced farewell rallies”, Johnson said: “I would say it is up to the organisations, as the directive states, to decide how they are going to carry out directing them to each other.
He also insisted that his birthday gathering, in June 2020 at the height of the pandemic, which had been fined by the police, was “reasonably necessary for business purposes”.
He defended the presence of luxury interior designer Lulu Lytle – who was renovating the Johnsons’ Downing Street flat – because she was a “contractor” working at No 10.
He said the then-counselor Rishi Sunak, who was also present, would have been “as surprised as I was” about the fines they had received.
“I thought it was a completely innocent occurrence,” Johnson said. “Nothing other than an ordinary, ordinary event or workplace event in the garden caught my eye.”
“A flash of doubt”
In another improper conversation with Sir Bernard, Johnson was asked about his comments that it was “not a vice” to rely on political advisers for assurances before making statements to the House of Commons.
Sir Bernard expressed his amazement that, if there had been even “the slightest glimmer of doubt” about whether the rules were being followed, Johnson would not have sought advice from civil servants or government lawyers.
Sir Bernard told him, “If I were accused of a breach of the law and had to make pledges to Parliament… I would like to consult a solicitor.”
A visibly upset Johnson told the Tory seniors: “This is pure nonsense, I mean, complete nonsense.
“I asked the people involved. They were old people. They were working hard.”
The committee will pass its verdict on Mr Johnson by the summer.
The entire House of Commons will vote on any penalty he recommends. Sunak agreed to give Tory MPs a vote of conscience over Johnson’s fate.
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