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Boris Johnson was dealt two humiliating blows in parliament on Wednesday as he was forced to plead “hand on heart” that he had not lied to MPs over Partygate while he also failed to lead a Commons revolt against Rishi Sunak.
During an occasionally bad-tempered three-hour grilling, the former prime minister defended the decision to hold parties inside No 10 during the pandemic – including one attended by his wife and his interior designer – saying they had been “necessary” for work purposes.
It also emerged that Mr Johnson had been explicitly warned against claiming that all Covid guidance had been followed – but did so anyway.
Meanwhile, his efforts to undermine Mr Sunak’s post-Brexit agreement with the EU ended in abject failure as a vote on the Windsor Framework passed the Commons by a mammoth majority of 486.
Only 22 Tory MPs rebelled against the compromise to end the Northern Ireland protocol row, in what will be seen as another blow to Mr Johnson’s crumbling authority.
It came as Mr Johnson:
- said he would have been “utterly insane” to knowingly lie to parliament, after swearing an oath on the Bible
- described holding leaving drinks for No 10 staff during lockdown as “essential”
- said staff in No 10 “didn’t touch each other’s pens” during the pandemic, but admitted that “of course” they had passed each other drinks at events
- complained of the “manifestly unfair” process in the hearing
The parliamentary inquiry, conducted by the Commons privileges committee, is investigating whether Mr Johnson deliberately or recklessly misled the Commons with his statements.
If he is found to have done so, he could be suspended as an MP – potentially triggering a by-election in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency.
Mr Johnson came under pressure during the hearing as Harriet Harman, the Labour chair of the Tory-majority committee, asked if he could understand why MPs were “dismayed about the flimsy nature” of the assurances he had relied on for his statements to the Commons.
Mr Johnson also defended his decision to seek those assurances from his media advisers, after Tory MP Sir Bernard Jenkin said that in Mr Johnson’s position he would have sought legal advice if there was even “the thinnest scintilla of doubt” over whether the rules had been followed.
During the session, Mr Johnson defended a birthday party attended by his wife and his interior designer inside No 10 as “reasonably necessary for work purposes”.
Leaving drinks for No 10 staff were “essential”, he said. “I will believe until the day I die it was my job to thank the staff” who were working flat-out during Covid, he told the committee.
But Sir Bernard told him the Covid guidance did not say that parties were allowed if deemed important. “The guidance does not say that,” he said.
Mr Johnson admitted he should have told the Commons that the “rules” had been adhered to, rather than that the “guidance” had been followed “at all times” in No 10.
He said he was “misremembering” the line that had been given to the media as the scandal erupted. But in a further blow to Mr Johnson, it also emerged that cabinet secretary Simon Case had not given him any assurances that Covid rules had been followed at all times in No 10 during lockdown.
It emerged that Mr Johnson was warned by principal private secretary Martin Reynolds against claiming that all Covid guidance had been followed, but went ahead and made that claim in the Commons.
Even before Wednesday’s hearing began, it was caught up in a row over allegations that Mr Johnson’s supporters had sought to “bully” committee members.
Grilled on whether he agreed with his allies that the committee was a “kangaroo court”, Mr Johnson said he did not want to see any “intimidation”, but warned darkly: “I will wait to see how you proceed with the evidence that you have.”
Mr Johnson was adamant he would be exonerated, saying it would have been “utterly insane” to mislead parliament and that it would be “unfair and wrong” for the committee to conclude he had done so.
Supported in the committee room by arch-loyalist Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mr Johnson also accused Ms Harman of having previously made comments that were “prejudicial” to his case.
Ms Harman warned: “Our democracy depends upon trust that what ministers tell MPs in the House of Commons is the truth. And without that trust, our entire parliamentary democracy is undermined.”
After the hearing, Mr Johnson’s former boss Max Hastings told LBC: “I don’t think you can write off Boris Johnson until he is buried at a crossroads with a stake driven through his heart … he is a blight not only on the Conservative Party, but on the British body politic.”