Boris Johnson erupts at ‘complete nonsense’ in Partygate grilling
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Bullish Boris Johnson insisted “hand on heart” he did not lie to MPs as he faced down his interrogators in a gruelling televised showdown. The ex-PM told a House of Commons probe he took “full responsibility” for what took place in Partygate on his watch. He said Privileges Committee MPs had “found nothing” to prove he misled Parliament and claimed he acted in good faith.
Mr Johnson went on: “The purpose of this inquiry is not to reopen so-called Partygate.
“It is to discover whether or not I lied to Parliament, willingly misled colleagues and the country about what I knew and believed about those gatherings when I said the rules and the guidance had been followed at No10.
“I’m here to say to you hand on heart that I did not lie to the House. When those statements were made, they were made in good faith and on the basis of what I honestly knew and believed at the time.”
It was a barnstorming performance – but the former Premier was also clearly exasperated during the tetchy three-and-a-half-hour session in Parliament.
He insisted that several mid-pandemic gatherings in Downing Street were “essential” to the workings of Government and defended various rule-breaking events – including one to mark his birthday, for which he was fined by the Met Police – as being “necessary for work purposes”.
Mr Johnson also defended raising a toast surrounded by alcohol at a leaving do for his then-communications chief Lee Cain as “not only reasonably necessary but it was essential for work purposes”.
He said Mr Cain and his own senior advisor Dominic Cummings had left their jobs “in very, very difficult and challenging circumstances”, and “it was necessary to steady the ship, it was necessary to show that there was no rancour, the business of the Government was being carried on – that’s what we had to do, that’s what I had to do”.
The hearing followed a 10-month investigation by the Commons committee, comprised of four Tory MPs plus one each from Labour and the SNP – chaired by Labour’s Harriet Harman.
The members have been probing Mr Johnson’s earlier claims to the Commons on whether Covid legislation and Government guidance was observed at six gatherings in No 10 from May 2020 to January 2021, while he was PM.
He responded to the committee that if it ought to have been obvious to him that rules were broken in Downing Street, it should also have been apparent to then-Chancellor, now Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak and “equally obvious to dozens of others, including the most senior officials in the country, all of them – like me – responsible for drawing up the rules”.
The committee is not expected to rule for weeks if Mr Johnson deliberately misled Parliament but its verdict may lead to a by-election in his Uxbridge seat.
Mr Johnson swore an oath on a King James Bible before the MPs’ questions and in his replies said it would have been “utterly insane” for him to have misled Parliament.
He went on: “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.”
Mr Johnson said the layout of No 10 made it difficult to work at speed and also maintain social distance. There was not a “forcefield around every human being” but attempts were made to keep “as wide a berth as we could. But it would have been impossible to have a drill sergeant measuring the distancing”.
He claimed it was “ridiculous” to expect him to have known what was going on all over the building as he was Prime Minister, trying to deal with a pandemic and was “fully entitled” to rely on what advisers told him.
Mr Johnson’s allies, including senior Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, sat in the committee room to give him moral support. Mr Rees-Mogg had likened the inquiry to a kangaroo court – although it was ordered by the Commons without any opposition – and said later Mr Johnson did “very well against the marsupials”.
Mr Johnson hit out at the “manifestly unfair” process, adding there was “not a shred of evidence” to suggest that he misled MPs: “I think that you should exonerate me of any contempt.”
Asked about a big gathering in No 10’s garden on May 20 2020, Mr Johnson said: “People who say that we were partying in lockdown simply do not know what they are talking about.”
He may be suspended if found to have committed a contempt of Parliament with denials of lockdown breaches, including telling MPs in December 2021 “the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times”.
Mr Johnson accepted that his denials turned out to be inaccurate but said he corrected the record at the “earliest opportunity” – on January 12 last year.
He was accused on Wednesday of relying on “flimsy” assurances before he made the statements.
Tory committee member Sir Bernard Jenkin asked why Mr Johnson failed to take “proper advice” but he rejected that as “complete nonsense”.
The whole Commons will vote on any recommendations made by the committee – Mr Sunak has let Tory MPs vote with their conscience over Mr Johnson’s fate.
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