Boris Johnson battles for political life ahead of showdown Partygate grilling
Boris Johnson is hunkered down with his legal team this weekend to get ready for an extraordinary televised grilling by MPs that will decide his political fate.
The former Tory prime minister is scrambling to save his career ahead as he gets ready for Wednesday’s four-hour showdown hearing on whether he lied about Partygate in parliament.
Mr Johnson will hand over a 50-page dossier to the cross-party privileges committee on Monday in a last-ditch bid to counter the narrative that he lied about his knowledge of No 10 parties during the Covid crisis.
It is high noon for Mr Johnson – who faces a possible by-election in his Uxbridge and Ruislip constituency if he is found to have broken rules – who still hopes he can stage an unlikely return to No 10.
His attempted pushback sets up a remarkable clash of evidence, after the committee’s initial 20-page report said it would have been “obvious” to Mr Johnson that events he personally attended broke Covid rules.
In the dirtiest political fight Westminster has seen in years, Johnson allies have launched an attempt to undermine the committee – while senior Tory MPs accuses the former PM of “Trumpian” tactics.
Allies of Mr Johnson claimed that he will provide a “detailed and compelling” account to the committee before his appearance, showing that he “did not knowingly mislead the House”.
The dossier overseen by his lawyer David Pannick KQ will point to a series of WhatsApp messages from senior civil servants and members of his No 10 team showing that he had relied upon their advice when he made his statements to parliament.
Mr Johnson will also publish messages which show that other senior figures in No 10 believed the gatherings were covered by the “workplace exemption” in the lockdown rules.
However, the committee has revealed MPs found the then-No 10 communications chief admitted there was a “great gaping hole” in Mr Johnson’s account, saying he was “not sure” the workplace exemption excused worked.
The committee also found that Mr Johnson’s key claim – that all rules were followed – came from a special adviser and was not “a general assurance (that) no guidance or rules were broken”.
But battling to save himself, the former prime minister is also expected to attack the committee itself and set out why process should be “terminated”.
Mr Johnson and his allies claim that the committee’s interim report relies on evidence gathered by former senior civil servant Sue Gray during her Partygate probe finished in May 2022.
But the eight-person committee led by Labour veteran Harriet Harman has made clear it has gathered evidence directly from witnesses independent of Ms Gray’s report.
And although Ms Gray is set to become Keir Starmer’s chief of staff, she was not approached about the Labour role until November, six months after her Partygate report was published, it is understood.
Lord Cruddas, the former Tory party treasurer who launched the Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO) after Mr Johnson was kicked out of No 10, has led claims the committee is a “stitch-up”.
Conservative Post, a website affiliated with CDO, has launched a petition urging party members to email the four Tory MPs who sit on the committee, urging them to quit the “banana republic”.
The draft emails members are encouraged to send warn the MPs – Alberto Costa, Sir Bernard Jenkin, Andy Carter and Laura Farris – of “deep concern and disappointment over your participation in the Labour-led investigation”.
Commons leader Penny Mordaunt said earlier this week that a “dim view” would be taken of any MP or peer who made attempts to pressure the privileges committee probe to halt its work.
Another Johnson ally, ex-home secretary Priti Patel, said the Partygate inquiry puts “our democracy in a very, very bad light”, claiming there is a “culture of collusion”.
But one senior Tory MP said Mr Johnson and his allies had gone “full Trump” in their “desperate” effort to discredit the committee ahead of a Commons vote on any punishment.
If found to have lied to parliament and suspended, all MPs would have to vote to agree on the sanction. If a suspension of at least 10 days is imposed, Mr Johnson could face a recall petition from his constituents that would then trigger a by-election.
Rishi Sunak has made clear that he would not use the Tory whip to exert pressure on his colleagues as he faces a possible suspension. The PM said earlier this week: “It’s not right for the government to get involved.”
Cabinet Office Oliver Dowden said he expected Mr Johnson to mount a “robust” defence on Wednesday – but made clear it would be for MPs to decide his fate. Asked whether there would be a free vote for Tory MPs on any sanctions, Mr Dowden told Sky News it was “standard practice” on House matters.
Mr Johnson is believed to have been provided with uncensored evidence gathered by the committee since the summer, including 23 witness statements and names of people who took part.
He will be able to bring and consult with Lord Pannick during Wednesday’s grilling – set to take place between 2pm and 6pm – but the lawyer will not be able to answer questions on the ex-PM’s behalf.
A spokesman for Mr Johnson told The Independent: “The privileges committee will vindicate Mr Johnson’s position.
“Despite ten months of work, it has not produced a single piece of evidence that shows Mr Johnson knowingly misled parliament. Rather, it will be shown that the evidence supports Mr Johnson’s case.”