Britain’s former prime minister Boris Johnson has said he inadvertently misled parliament over the “Partygate” scandal but blamed top aides, ahead of a televised grilling that could determine his political fate.
Johnson re-enters the bear pit of parliamentary inquisition on Wednesday for the grilling by the cross-party privileges committee that is set to reopen old wounds.
Parliament’s Committee of Privileges is investigating whether Johnson, who was removed from Downing Street in September last year, intentionally or recklessly misled parliament in a series of statements about the rule-breaking parties.
If the committee finds Johnson intentionally misled parliament then he could be suspended from the House of Commons, the lower house of parliament. Any suspension longer than 10 days could prompt a by-election in his constituency.
The Partygate scandal ultimately contributed to the downfall of Johnson, after months of reports that he, alongside other senior government figures, had been present at alcohol-fuelled gatherings in Downing Street during 2020 and 2021 when most of the rest of Britain was forced to stay at home due to coronavirus restrictions and lockdowns.
The outcry and repeated allegations of lying eventually prompted the resignations of much of his top team of government ministers, including the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak.
Johnson’s strident supporters insist he was betrayed by Conservative colleagues, and are campaigning for his return ahead of a general election likely next year.
Ahead of the televised hearing, Johnson was defiant as he released a 52-page dossier detailing his belief that he was truthful when he told the Commons on several occasions that all the COVID rules were respected.
In hindsight, he recognised that he did “mislead” the House, but only inadvertently and based on assurances given by top aides that the rules were being followed.
“I did not intentionally or recklessly mislead the House” on any date, he wrote. “I would never have dreamed of doing so.”
Johnson was fined by police for one Downing Street gathering, along with Sunak, his then-finance minister.
The former Conservative leader apologised and corrected the parliamentary record last May after previously insisting to MPs that the gatherings were above board.
‘Lack of shame and humility’
Johnson, himself, nearly died of COVID. Relatives who did lose loved ones said his defence showed him brazenly trying to evade responsibility.
“Johnson’s defence continues to highlight his lack of shame and humility,” said Kathryn de Prudhoe, a psychotherapist whose father died early in the pandemic.
“The victims in all of this are families like mine who lost loved ones in the most traumatic circumstances, people who lost their jobs, livelihoods and homes or their mental health because they followed the rules that he made, but couldn’t stick to,” she said.
The successive waves of COVID from 2020 killed more than 220,000 people in the UK, the second-worst toll in Europe behind Russia’s.
A public inquiry is looking into the government’s overall response, and is likely to take years.
I will not forgive or forget Johnson for #Partygate My mother wept on her 90th birthday when her only grandson couldn’t come into the house but sat on a chair on the pavement reading poetry to her pic.twitter.com/fB7IjPYRq7
— Caroline Kenyon (@C_Kenyon1) March 21, 2023
Johnson’s many denials
December 1, 2021 – “All guidance was followed completely in Number 10,” Johnson tells the House of Commons in response to a Daily Mirror story the previous day. It is the first time he has addressed the matter in parliament.
December 8, 2021 – Johnson, again addressing the Commons: “I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no COVID rules were broken.”
January 14, 2022 – Downing Street apologises to Queen Elizabeth II after reports emerged of staff partying long into the night before the funeral of her husband Prince Philip the previous April.
January 25, 2022 – London’s Metropolitan Police force starts its own investigation.
April 12, 2022 – Johnson, his wife Carrie and Sunak are all fined by the Met police for attending a June 2020 party thrown by staff for the prime minister’s birthday. “I have to say in all frankness, at the time, it did not occur to me that this might have been a breach of the rules,” Johnson said.
May 25, 2022 – A report chronicles the Downing Street partying in gory detail, including vomiting, a fight among staff, and rudeness towards security and cleaning staff. While saying “I bitterly regret” the dismal picture drawn by the report, Johnson dismisses renewed opposition demands for his resignation. He said it was his duty to attend leaving drinks for departing staff as part of his job. “It didn’t occur to me that this was anything except what I think was my duty to do as prime minister during a pandemic and that’s why I did it,” he told reporters.
July 7, 2022 – Johnson resigns as PM.