Boris Johnson admitted he misled lawmakers but claimed he did so unintentionally, as the former British prime minister fought to save his political career at a tense and combative hearing into the “Partygate” scandal that contributed to the collapse of his government.
Johnson, flanked by lawyers in a packed committee room, sparred with lawmakers during a heated three-hour grilling at the hands of members of parliament (MPs) on the Privileges Committee on Tuesday afternoon.
He was rebuffed by members of the panel, whose televised interrogation of Johnson is the major spectacle of a months-long investigation that could doom the former prime minister’s political future.
Accepting that social distancing measures were broken, Johnson argued “it would have been impossible to have a drill sergeant measuring the distancing between us all hours of the day and night.”
He defended his presence at leaving drinks for staffers, insisting that such events were necessary – even at a time when many Britons couldn’t visit their loved ones in hospital as Covid-19 killed hundreds of people each day.
“A leaving do for everyone else in the country was not acceptable under the guidelines … so why was it acceptable and necessary for work purposes in Number 10?” a lawmaker asked Johnson.
Johnson’s premiership came crashing down in 2022 after it emerged that dozens of social gatherings took place on his watch – some of which he personally attended – at a time when Britons were living under strict rules due to Covid-19.
It shocked a public that for more than a year had put their lives on hold, unable to see colleagues, friends and even dying relatives as Britain plunged into and out of various stages of lockdown.
Johnson has since attempted to launch a political comeback. But the inquiry into whether he lied in Parliament about those parties has the potential to imperil his career; if the committee recommends a lengthy suspension from Parliament, he could be forced to stand in a by-election in his tightly-fought constituency.
The committee will not give its final report for at least a month. If it does find that Johnson knowingly misled lawmakers, it could still opt for a softer punishment – either a short suspension, which wouldn’t require a by-election, or merely the requirement that Johnson apologizes to the House.
Johnson began his testimony on Wednesday by admitting to misleading Parliament over the existence of parties, but claiming he did so unknowingly. “I’m here to say to you, hand on heart, that I did not lie to the House,” Johnson said during his opening statement. He attacked the testimony of his former top adviser turned political foe, Dominic Cummings, saying “he has every motive to lie.”
The frosty back-and-forth with the panel, during which Johnson raised his voice, pointed his finger and bristled with several committee members, rehashed a saga that appalled the British public and finally exposed a seemingly scandal-proof leader to the pull of political gravity.
At the heart of the inquiry – beneath the minutiae of its testimonies and the hundreds of pages of legalese submitted as evidence – lies a simple question: Was Johnson truly so unaware of his own government’s Covid-19 guidance that he did not realize he was breaking it by attending parties inside Downing Street?
The ex-prime minister is arguing that he was. Johnson accepts he misled Parliament, but he says it never occurred to him at the time that the gatherings were inappropriate, and so he did not knowingly mislead lawmakers when he told them that no rules were broken.
Johnson has cut a combative figure at times during the hours-long session, a rare and humbling experience for a former statesman facing a possible exile from Parliament.
His defense was scattershot in its scope; he also argued that some gatherings were appropriate for work purposes and sought to shift some culpability onto his advisers who, he claimed, had reassured him rules were followed.
He also pointed to the “higgledy-piggledy” corridors inside Downing Street and asked how it would be possible to police social distancing.
But his arguments were probed robustly by fellow MPs. The committee’s most recent report on the investigation says that the evidence “strongly suggests that breaches of guidance would have been obvious to Mr. Johnson at the time he was at the gatherings.”
“It must have been obvious to you at the time, and even more obvious on reflection afterwards as this whole thing broke around you, that it was in breach of workplace guidance,” lawmaker Bernard Jenkins put to Johnson at one point.
At several other occasions he was pressed to stop obfuscating. “You’re giving very long answers, and it’s taking longer than we need, and you’re repeating yourself quite a lot – can we just get on with the questions please?” he was asked.
And when asked whether he considered the committee to be a “kangaroo court,” as some of his allies have suggested, Johnson declined to throw his full support behind his fellow lawmakers.
“People will judge for themselves, on the basis of the evidence you have produced, the fairness of this committee. I have every confidence you will show that you can be fair,” he said.
“Today was a new low for Boris Johnson,” the group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice said in a statement while the former prime minister gave evidence.
“He claims it was ‘his job’ to say goodbye to colleagues, that he ‘would have needed an electric fence’ around him to stick to the rules and that social distancing only applied ‘when possible’ … Did any of this apply when we couldn’t be with our loved ones for weeks as they suffered alone in care homes and hospitals, or even be there to hold their hands in their dying moments?”
Wednesday’s hearing, which dissected in detail the circumstances of each individual gathering, seemed at times to be vaguely removed from reality: The damning public verdict on Partygate was established last year, and sentiment turned against Johnson so severely that he was ultimately forced from office.
But the inquiry also has live and dangerous political implications for a politician who for more than two decades has enjoyed a celebrity profile and played a central role in bringing about Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
Partygate was the single most significant factor in Johnson’s swift and spectacular political downfall; the ex-leader left Downing Street for the last time exactly 1,000 days after he won a landslide electoral victory that had sparked chatter of a new political dynasty.
Now even Johnson’s ability to sit in Parliament is at stake. If the inquiry suggests a suspension of 10 days or more, and that recommendation is endorsed by a vote of MPs, Johnson will be forced to fight a by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, a seat that has been drifting towards the Labour Party in recent years and is firmly in the opposition’s sights.
London’s Metropolitan Police issued more than 100 fines to people who worked in Downing Street for breaches of pandemic regulations at times the country was under varying degrees of lockdown.
Johnson received one himself, for attending a gathering where he was presented with a birthday cake; his then-Chancellor, subsequently political rival and current Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, was also fined.
Johnson reminded the committee of that fact in a reference to Sunak that will have been unwelcome inside Downing Street, suggesting that if it were obvious to Johnson that rules were being broken, “it must have been obvious to others in the building, including the current Prime Minister.”
A separate investigation by civil servant Sue Gray last year found that “the senior leadership at the centre” of Johnson’s administration “must bear responsibility” for a culture that allowed the parties to take place.
She added there is “no excuse for some of the behaviour” she investigated, which included “excessive alcohol consumption.” Logs of email exchanges were also featured, including some where staff openly discussed hiding their partying from the media.
More than 220,000 people have died in the United Kingdom as a result of Covid-19 since the pandemic began, according to government figures.