Boris Johnson apologises for partygate as allies say he’ll fight on

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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Boris Johnson on Tuesday “wholeheartedly” apologised over the partygate affair as he faced MPs for the first time since he was fined for breaking lockdown laws.

As allies of the Prime Minister rallied round him and insisted he would see off calls for him to resign to lead the Conservatives into the next general election, Mr Johnson said he didn’t believe — certainly at the time — that a Downing Street gathering he attended to mark his birthday in June 2020 amounted to a breach of the rules.

Mr Johnson said: "As soon as I received the notice, I acknowledged the hurt and anger and I said that people had a right to expect better of their Prime Minister - and I repeat that, Mr Speaker, again in the House now.

"Let me also say, not by way of mitigation or excuse but purely because it explains my previous words in this House, that it did not occur to me then or subsequently that a gathering in the Cabinet Room just before a vital meeting on Covid strategy could amount to a breach of the rules.

"I repeat that was my mistake and I apologise for it unreservedly. I respect the outcome of the police investigation, which is still under way, and I can only say that I will respect their decision-making and always take the appropriate steps."

He added: "It is precisely because I know that so many people are angry and disappointed that I feel an even greater sense of obligation to deliver on the priorities of the British people.

"And to respond in the best traditions of our country, to Putin's barbaric onslaught against Ukraine."

Mr Johnson said he has taken "significant steps" to change the way things work in No 10.

But as Mr Johnson faces a parliamentary vote on whether he misled the Commons by previously claiming all rules were followed in Downing Street and the prospect of more fines in the coming weeks, Conservative former chief whip Mark Harper told him that he is no longer "worthy" to be Prime Minister after being fined.

He tweeted a letter to the chair of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservatives stating that he no longer has confidence in Boris Johnson to be Prime Minister.

Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer branded the statement by Mr Johnson “a joke” and accused the PM of being “dishonest”.

Sir Keir said: “Even now, as the latest mealy-mouthed apology stumbles out of one side of his mouth, a new set of deflections and distortions pour from the other.

“But the damage is already done. The public have made up their mind. They don’t believe a word the Prime Minister says. They know what he is. As ever with this Prime Minister, those close to him find themselves ruined and the institutions he vows to protect damaged.

“Good ministers forced to walk away from public service, the Chancellor’s career up in flames. And the leader of the Scottish Conservatives rendered pathetic. For all those unfamiliar with this Prime Minister’s career, this isn’t some fixable glitch in the system.

“It’s the whole point. It’s what he does. It’s who he is. He knows he’s dishonest and incapable of changing. So, he drags everybody else down with him...”

As Conservative MPs started shouting, complaining about Sir Keir’s use of the word dishonest, the Commons Speaker said: “I think the leader said dishonest. I don’t think that’s an appropriate word...

“We don’t want to talk about breaking rules, do we? I don’t think that’s a good time to discuss... I think if he just withdraws that and works around. I’m sure that with the knowledge that he has gained over many, many years, he can use appropriate words that is in keeping with good temperate language of this House.”

Sir Keir said: “I respect that ruling from the chair. The Prime Minister knows what he is and so he drags everybody else down with him.”

A senior Tory MP suggested earlier the jury was still out on Mr Johnson’s future.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the influential 1922 committee, said to force the Prime Minister out now and have instability at the top of government for at least two months would be “not in the country’s interests”.

But he added on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that many MPs would be waiting for the publication of the full report by senior civil servant Sue Gray and the results of the local elections on May 5, where the Conservatives are braced for significant losses.

“Personally I would like to see all the evidence, whether there are more fines issued, what Sue Gray has to say and then what the verdict of the British people in the local elections are before making any decisive judgments.

“At the moment it would be the wrong thing to do. That is why you are not having Conservative members of Parliament rushing... and calling for the Prime Minister to go. They are all withholding their judgment and waiting to see what happens.”

Another senior Conservative, Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the defence committee, urged Mr Johnson to call a vote on his leadership after the local elections to draw a line under the affair.

To try to shore up support for his premiership Mr Johnson used his statement to MPs today to try to place the £50 fine in the context of his response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the plan to tackle illegal immigration by sending unlawful migrants to Rwanda.

Earlier he shared a call with US president Joe Biden and other world leaders to discuss the latest developments in Ukraine. Mr Johnson was due to meet members of his party for a crunch meeting this evening.

MPs will get the chance to vote on whether MrJohnson misled Parliament over his assurances Covid rules were followed in Downing Street, the Commons Speaker announced on Tuesday.

Sir Lindsay Hoyle said he had approved an application from Labour leader Sir Keir and other opposition MPs allowing them to table a motion for debate on Thursday.

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