Former British prime minister Boris Johnson has insisted “hand on heart” that he never lied to lawmakers about rule-breaking government parties during the COVID-19 pandemic, mounting a robust defence at a hearing that could damage or even end his tumultuous political career.
The House of Commons standards committee questioned Johnson on Wednesday (early Thursday AEDT) over misleading statements he made to Parliament about a slew of gatherings in government buildings that breached lockdown rules.
If the committee concludes that he deliberately lied, he could face suspension or even lose his seat in the Commons.
Johnson came out swinging, telling the committee after taking an oath on a Bible, “Hand on heart … I did not lie to the House”.
“If anybody thinks I was partying during lockdown, they are completely wrong,” Johnson said during a session that displayed his characteristic qualities: blustering self-confidence, verbosity and — to critics — a loose relationship with facts.
Johnson also criticised the committee, which has four Conservative members and three from opposition parties, saying it was acting as “investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury”.
The hours-long hearing was a moment of peril for a politician whose career has been a roller coaster of scandals and comebacks.
If the House of Commons Committee of Privileges concludes Johnson lied deliberately, it would likely end hopes of a return to power for the 58-year-old politician, who led the Conservative Party to a landslide victory in 2019.
He was forced out by his own party in July 2022 after getting mired in scandals over money, ethics and judgment.
After reports of the parties emerged in December 2021, Johnson repeatedly assured lawmakers that he and his staff had always followed the rules.
That turned out to be wrong, Johnson acknowledged. But he said it was “what I honestly believed at the time”.
“I apologise for inadvertently misleading this House, but to say that I did it recklessly or deliberately is completely untrue,” he said.
In an interim report this month, the committee said evidence strongly suggested that it would have been “obvious” to Johnson that gatherings in his No. 10, Downing Street offices in 2020 and 2021 broke COVID-19 lockdown rules.
But Johnson said it never occurred to him that the events — which variously included cake, wine, cheese and a “secret Santa” festive gift exchange — broke the restrictions on socialising that his own government had imposed on the country.
He said he “honestly believed” the five events he attended, including a send-off for a staffer and his own surprise birthday party, were “lawful work gatherings” intended to boost morale among overworked staff members coping with a deadly pandemic.
He said that at the June 19, 2020, birthday celebration, no one sang “Happy Birthday” and the “Union Jack cake remained in its Tupperware box, unnoticed by me”.
Johnson said “trusted advisers” assured him that neither the legally binding rules nor the government’s coronavirus guidance had been broken.
However, several senior officials denied advising Johnson that the guidance always was followed.
Written evidence released by the committee on Wednesday showed that principal private secretary Martin Reynolds said that he had “questioned whether it was realistic to argue that all guidance had been followed at all times”.
Police eventually issued 126 fines over the late-night soirees, boozy parties and “wine time Fridays”, including one to Johnson, and the scandal helped hasten the end of his premiership.
Revelations about the gatherings sparked anger among Britons who had followed the government’s pandemic rules, unable to visit friends and family or even say goodbye to dying relatives in hospitals.
Police fined thousands of people across the country for minor breaches of the rules.
Johnson said he was later “genuinely shocked” by the government’s own rule-breaking that was uncovered by police and by senior civil servant Sue Gray, who led an investigation into partygate.
If the committee finds Johnson in contempt, it could recommend punishments ranging from an oral apology to suspension from Parliament, though any sanction would have to be approved by the whole House of Commons.
A suspension of 10 days or more would allow his constituents in the suburban London seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip to petition for a special election to replace Johnson as a member of Parliament.
Crises that have rocked Boris Johnson’s government
Rivka Gottlieb of the pressure group COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice said the session was “a new low for Boris Johnson”.
“It’s clear he lied when he said to our faces that he’d done ‘all he could’ to protect our loved ones, he lied again when he said the rules hadn’t been broken in No. 10, and he’s lying now when he denies that was the case,” Gottlieb said.
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Last modified: September 9, 2022