Boris Johnson on Wednesday argued that gatherings held in Whitehall during the Covid pandemic were “necessary” for work purposes, as he fought for his political survival in a three-hour grilling by MPs.
The former prime minister was forced to give evidence under oath to the Commons privileges committee, which is considering whether Mr Johnson misled MPs over the “partygate” scandal of 2020 and 2021.
Mr Johnson conceded that there was a period when a number of parties happened in Whitehall that breached guidance at the time, adding that he recognised the “public anger” provoked by the gatherings and took “full responsibility”.
But he argued that, ultimately, there was not “shred of evidence” to prove that he “wittingly or recklessly” misled parliament in his account of the matter.
“I think if this committee were to find me in contempt of parliament – having come and done something so utterly insane and contrary to my beliefs and my principles as to come here, to come to parliament and wittingly lie – I think that would be not only unfair, I think it would be wrong,” he said.
If the committee concludes Mr Johnson committed contempt by deliberately misleading parliament, members could recommend potential sanctions, including a formal apology or suspension from the Commons.
MPs would then vote on the proposed sanctions. A suspension of at least 10 days would enable voters in Johnson’s constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip to hold a “recall petition” to seek to trigger a by-election.
Mr Johnson defended the validity of some of the gatherings. He described the leaving party on November 13th, 2020 for Lee Cain – his former director of communications – as “necessary” because of tensions in Downing Street at the time.
“Two senior members of staff, the effective chief of staff and director of communications, had both left the building, or were about to leave the building in pretty acrimonious circumstances – or what were potentially acrimonious circumstances,” he said. “It was important for me to be there and to give reassurance.”
Mr Johnson rejected the characterisation that officials were “partying in lockdown”, when questioned over a gathering on May 20th 2020 within the Downing Street garden.
“It was not a large social gathering” he said. “My purpose there was to thank staff and motivate them in what had been a very difficult time, on what was also a very difficult day in which the cabinet secretary had just resigned.”
Sir Bernard Jenkin was among those to voice scepticism on the former prime minister’s justifications, at one point in the session stating: “I don’t think we agree with your interpretation of guidance.”
Mr Johnson’s defence largely relies on “assurances” given by aides, in particular senior advisers Jack Doyle and James Slack.
However, in a series of heated exchanges, members of the committee questioned whether he should have obtained “proper advice” on the gatherings before informing the Commons that all guidance had been followed.
“This is complete nonsense, I mean, complete nonsense,” Johnson said in response. “I asked the relevant people. They were senior people. They had been working very hard. Jack Doyle gave me a clear account of what had happened.”
The committee began its inquiry on June 29th 2022, and has since assessed a range of evidence, including 46 WhatsApp messages between Johnson and government officials, photographic evidence and input from the former prime minister’s legal team.
While Mr Johnson’s supporters have dismissed the committee as a “kangaroo court”, the panel of seven MPs is made up of four Conservative members, two Labour and one from the Scottish National Party.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, a close ally of Johnson, said the former prime minister had been “convincing and robust”, adding: “He will win in the court of public opinion.”
But some Tory MPs think Johnson is a busted flush; he was one of only 22 Tory Eurosceptics to vote against Rishi Sunak’s Northern Ireland Brexit deal on Wednesday. “He looks weak and lonely,” said one former Tory cabinet minister.
“This would be more relevant if he was looking to launch a political comeback,” another Conservative MP added. “But he is not.”
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023