Boris Johnson says ‘hand on heart’ he didn’t lie to Parliament about Partygate
London — On a day of high drama in British politics, Boris Johnson was battling for his political future at a marathon grilling by his peers.
“Hand on heart that I did not lie to the House,” Johnson said in an opening statement to lawmakers at the start of a hearing expected to last several hours.
The stakes are high for the former prime minister, who was ousted as leader by his own Conservative Party but remains a member of Parliament. He retains some support and has signaled he wouldn’t mind another crack at the top job.
Johnson was facing the House of Commons Privileges Committee, where he was giving public evidence about whether he knowingly misled Parliament when he denied coronavirus lockdown rules were broken at a string of boozy parties held at his 10 Downing Street offices.
Johnson began by telling the committee that some gatherings in Downing Street went “past the point where they could be said to be necessary for work purposes. That was wrong. I bitterly regret it. I understand public anger and I continue to apologize for what happened on my watch,” he said.
But he insisted that to the extent that he misled lawmakers about the gatherings, he did so in “good faith” and that it was an honest mistake.
That interrogation was paused a few minutes after it started so lawmakers could vote on a portion of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s new Brexit deal for Northern Ireland, dubbed the “Windsor Framework.” The plan — which aims to give the devolved government in Northern Ireland greater say on how European Union laws apply — passed, with support from the opposition Labour Party. But Johnson helped lead a revolt against it, and his opposition helps legitimize the continuing refusal by the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland to participate in the government there.
That two major storylines coincided on the same day was “not a coincidence,” said Catherine Barnard, a Cambridge University professor who specializes in the European Union. “It was done deliberately to show MPs that Rishi Sunak is having to clear up the mess of Boris Johnson, over Northern Ireland and the mess over the parties.”
Holding the Northern Ireland vote on the day of Johnson’s grilling also helped to draw attention away from those rebelling against Sunak’s deal, she noted.
For his part, Johnson is exposed in ways he never has been before. This was not a two-minute interview on the BBC. This hearing was televised live, Johnson was the lone witness, and three of the inquiry panel’s seven members, including the chair, are from opposition parties.
Many are watching his demeanor. Johnson likes to crack jokes and tell amusing stories. But he is being questioned about events that few find humorous. Britons were shocked when they learned that government ministers and staff hosted parties at Downing Street during the height of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, when the rest of the country was told to follow strict lockdown rules.
Johnson left his comic persona behind. He did lose his placid composure at one point when he said, “People who say that we were partying in lockdown simply do not know what they were talking about.”
At the heart of the interrogation is the question of why Johnson misled Parliament.
Johnson says it was an honest mistake and based on assurances he got from aides at the time. In fresh evidence published Wednesday, however, the cabinet secretary Simon Case denied telling Johnson that covid rules and guidance were followed at all times.
The Privileges Committee investigating Johnson has already said it should have been obvious that guidance was breached because he was at some of the events where rules were broken.
Johnson repeatedly talked about how events to thank staff were “essential for work purposes.”
“I struggle to see how I could have run Number 10, run hundreds of officials, who needed to be thanked and appreciated for their work in very trying circumstances without having brief farewell events,” Johnson said.
The Conservative lawmaker Bernard Jenkins told Johnson: “The guidance does not say you can have a thank you party and with as many people in the room as you like because you think it’s very important to thank people, the guidance doesn’t say that.”
Johnson’s argument that leaving drinks were “essential” may not wash with the public who had to follow rules that they set, including not being allowed to visit loved ones in hospitals.
Responding to Johnson’s testimony, one social media user wrote: “Ah yes, November 2020, when I wasn’t allowed to accompany my pregnant wife to any prenatal scans/appointments, and when my daughter was born I was ushered out of the hospital after an hour because I wasn’t allowed onto the ward. But Boris says a leaving do was essential. Got it.”
The committee also zeroed in on whether Johnson did correct the record at the “earliest opportunity” as he claimed. It took him six months to do so. Johnson said it was appropriate to wait until senior civil servant Sue Gray published her final report on Partygate.
In Britain, there are consequences for misleading Parliament, and the committee will have to weigh whether they think Johnson made an honest mistake or if he was deliberate or reckless.
A judgment in the form of a report by the committee might not land until May, and Johnson could face sanctions or a recall election — a special election in the constituency he represents to decide whether he should be removed before the next general election.