MPs will decide on Thursday if Boris Johnson should face an investigation over his statements about attending parties in Downing Street during lockdown.
Mr Johnson apologised “unreservedly” to the House of Commons for a breach of the rules that led to a police fine but he insisted that he had not deliberately misled MPs about a birthday celebration in the cabinet room in June 2020.
“It did not occur to me, then or subsequently, that a gathering in the cabinet room just before a vital meeting on Covid strategy could amount to a breach of the rules. I repeat: that was my mistake and I apologise for it unreservedly,” he said.
Asked by veteran Tory MP Peter Bone if he had deliberately misled the House – by convention a resigning offence for ministers – Mr Johnson replied “No”.
A number of Conservative backbenchers voiced support for the prime minister but former chief whip Mark Harper joined opposition parties in calling on Mr Johnson to resign.
Mr Harper, who was one of the leading backbench critics of the government’s coronavirus lockdowns, has written to the chairman of the Conservative Party’s 1922 Committee expressing no confidence in the prime minister.
“I regret to say that we have a prime minister who broke the laws that he told the country they had to follow, hasn’t been straightforward about it and is now going to ask the decent men and women on these benches to defend what I think is indefensible. I am very sorry to have to say this, but I no longer think he is worthy of the great office that he holds,” he said.
Before Mr Johnson's statement, Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle agreed to Labour's request that MPs should vote on Thursday on whether the prime minister should be referred to the standards committee to investigate whether he deliberately misled the House. In a blistering speech, Labour leader Keir Starmer called on Conservative backbenchers to remove Mr Johnson from office, warning that the prime minister ruined everyone close to him.
“For all those unfamiliar with this prime minister’s career. This isn’t some fixable glitch in the system. It’s the whole point. It’s what he does. It’s who he is. He knows he’s dishonest and incapable of changing. So he drags everybody else down with him,” he said.
“The more people debase themselves, parroting his absurd defences, the more the public will believe all politicians are the same. All as bad as each other. And that suits this prime minister just fine.”
Mr Johnson and chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak are among 50 people to be fined in relation to Downing Street lockdown-breaking parties so far. The Metropolitan Police are continuing to investigate a number of gatherings, including some the prime minister is believed to have attended.
Mr Johnson on Tuesday rejected a call from a Conservative backbencher to publish immediately a report on the parties by senior civil servant Sue Gray, saying it was important to wait until the police investigation is over.