UK ex-PM Johnson denies lying over lockdown parties ahead of TV showdown

UK ex-PM Johnson denies lying over lockdown parties ahead of TV showdown
Former British PM Boris Johnson has denied deliberately misleading parliament over his flurry of parties during the Covid-19 lockdowns.
3 min read
Johnson has protested his innocence, so is likely to fight any penalty [source: Getty]

Britain's former Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday he inadvertently misled parliament over the "Partygate" scandal but blamed top aides, ahead of a televised grilling that could determine his political fate.

Johnson released a 52-page dossier detailing why he denied breaking the rules over two years of Covid lockdowns, when his staff were often partying in 10 Downing Street.

He was fined himself by police for one gathering, along with his then finance minister and current prime minister Rishi Sunak.

The former Conservative leader apologised and corrected the parliamentary record last May after previously insisting to MPs that the gatherings were above board.

Johnson refused to quit at the time but did so in July, after a ministerial rebellion over a separate ethics scandal, and the stakes are high as his supporters agitate now for his return to power.

"I did not intentionally or recklessly mislead the House on 1 December 2021, 8 December 2021, or on any other date," he wrote in the submission, which was reportedly drafted by one of London's most expensive lawyers.

"I would never have dreamed of doing so."

The cross-party privileges committee of MPs is investigating whether he lied in his previous denials, prior to May, and is due to interrogate Johnson for up to four hours on Wednesday.

A guilty verdict could lead to his suspension from the House of Commons. If the suspension is more than 10 sitting days, it could trigger a special election for his west London seat, if enough voters demand one.

Johnson said his apology and correction in May came at the earliest opportunity - after London police and senior civil servant Sue Gray concluded their own investigations.

He conceded that the Commons was "misled" when he previously stated that all the Covid rules and guidance had been respected.

"But when the statements were made, they were made in good faith and on the basis of what I honestly knew and believed at the time," he argued, blaming senior advisors who had assured him that no rules were broken.

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However, the campaign group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK said it was "obvious" that Johnson had lied to parliament and should resign as an MP.

"Far worse though is the lies he deliberately told to bereaved families, after failing to protect our loved ones. His claim that he did so in 'good faith' is sickening," it said.

The successive waves of Covid from 2020 claimed the lives of more than 220,000 people in Britain, the second worst toll in Europe behind Russia's.

A separate, public inquiry is looking into the government's overall response, and is likely to take years.

So probes such as the privileges committee's offer a more immediate snapshot into that painful period.

Despite having a Conservative majority, the committee has been accused by Johnson loyalists of pursuing a "witch hunt", and his dossier accused its members of being partisan and straying beyond their remit.

The committee retorted that it "remains confident in the fairness of its processes".

"Mr Johnson's written submission contains no new documentary evidence," it added in a statement.

This month, the MPs found in an interim report that Johnson should have known the rules were being flouted. They released previously unseen photographs of the then prime minister toasting staff with wine at several gatherings.

They also published WhatsApp messages showing senior aides struggling to come up with a public justification for the parties.

Johnson attempted a dramatic comeback in October. Loyalists, accusing Sunak of betrayal, say the former leader would revive the beleaguered Conservatives if he returns.

But that is disputed by pollsters.

"He is a serious negative for most people," Conservative lord and elections expert Robert Hayward told reporters.

"Boris's polling is far worse than is the case for Rishi," he said.