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Besieged Boris Johnson suggests he may refuse to accept partygate verdict

Boris Johnson - UNPIXS
Boris Johnson - UNPIXS

Boris Johnson dismissed partygate allegations as “complete nonsense” on Wednesday and hinted that he could refuse to accept the verdict from an inquiry if it finds he misled MPs.

Over the course of a more than three-hour privileges committee hearing, the former prime minister pleaded “hand on heart” that he had not meant to deceive Parliament about lockdown-breaking events in Downing Street.

Mr Johnson said it would have been “utterly insane” to issue blanket denials he knew to be false, arguing that he believed at the time that Covid guidance was followed on all occasions.

He repeatedly insisted that he had not wilfully misled the Commons, as members of the committee, led by Harriet Harman, questioned his version of events.

Mr Johnson was defiant as he faced the MPs, who have the power to recommend that he is suspended from the Commons.

If a suspension of 10 days or more is proposed by the committee and voted through by MPs, a by-election could be triggered in Mr Johnson’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat, potentially ending his parliamentary career.

He also suffered a blow as he saw his rebellion over Brexit fail. Just 21 Tory MPs voted with him against a key plank of Rishi Sunak’s Northern Ireland deal.

The Prime Minister’s solution to the Brexit impasse in the province comfortably passed the House of Commons as Labour backed it and a major Tory rebellion failed to materialise.

While Mr Johnson was in the middle of giving evidence, Downing Street chose to publish Mr Sunak’s tax returns, which showed that he paid just over £1 million in tax on nearly £4.8 million in income – an effective rate of 22 per cent.

Near the end of a gruelling committee session, Mr Johnson cast doubt on whether he would accept that the inquiry had been fair if it concluded against him, saying he would “wait to see”.

The televised hearing was the culmination of an inquiry lasting almost a year into whether Mr Johnson wilfully misled MPs when denying Covid rules were broken at partygate events.

In one of the most heated moments, Mr Johnson pushed back against the suggestion that he should have sought assurances about whether rules were broken from more senior officials in Downing Street.

“This is complete nonsense, I mean, complete nonsense. I asked the relevant people. They were senior people. They had been working very hard,” he said about one event.

After swearing on a King James Bible to tell the truth, Mr Johnson delivered an opening statement that categorically rejected the suggestion he had deceived the Commons.

The former prime minister said of denials he had issued as partygate media reports first emerged: “I’m here to say to you, hand on heart, 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.”

Mr Johnson argued that he believed social distancing guidance had not been breached at alcohol-fuelled farewell events he attended where people crowded together.

The former prime minister argued that the guidance said social distancing was only needed “where possible”, noting that the 18th-century Downing Street complex was “cramped”.

To make his defence, Mr Johnson pointed to the lack of written evidence showing he had been warned rules had been broken, calling it the “'total silence of the electronic record”.

The former prime minister also raised fears that the committee was acting as “investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury”, one of a number of warnings issued about impartiality.

Some members of the committee – made up of four Conservative MPs, two Labour MPs and an SNP MP – made remarks that indicated disbelief at some of Mr Johnson’s arguments.

Ms Harman, the Labour MP chairing the inquiry, questioned Mr Johnson’s citing of others’ assurances that Covid rules were not broken given that he attended some of the events himself.

Boris Johnson at a gathering in June 2020 - PA
Boris Johnson at a gathering in June 2020 - PA

She said: “If I was going at 100mph and I saw the speedometer saying 100mph it would be a bit odd, wouldn’t it, if I said ‘somebody assured me that I wasn’t’?”

Elsewhere in Parliament on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Sunak’s proposal for the “Stormont brake” to give the Northern Irish Assembly a say on EU law passed with ease.

Mr Johnson and Liz Truss, his successor as prime minister, both declared that they would oppose the move on Wednesday morning, but in the end only 22 Tory MPs voted against the plan, although many more abstained.

It meant the proposal was passed with Conservative votes rather than having to rely on support from Labour – something seen as a critical test of Mr Sunak’s authority.

A report revealing the privileges committee’s conclusions on whether Mr Johnson deliberately misled MPs is expected before the summer.