Boris Johnson faces day of reckoning during Partygate committee hearing

<span>Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

Boris Johnson faces a battle for his political future as he tries to convince a cross-party committee of MPs that he only misled the House of Commons unintentionally over the Partygate scandal.

Ahead of a marathon evidence session with the privileges committee, the former prime minister claimed that his assurances to MPs that Covid rules had been followed had been made in “good faith”.

He is expected to argue that evidence gathered from No 10 officials, more of which is due to be published by the committee on Wednesday, “conclusively” shows that he did not deliberately mislead parliament.

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However, the stakes for Johnson could not be higher. If the committee decides he “recklessly” misled MPs, he faces being suspended from parliament. A suspension of 10 sitting days or more triggers a recall petition that could lead to a byelection in his west London seat.

In a 52-page witness statement published on Tuesday, he wrote: “I accept that the House of Commons was misled by my statements that the rules and guidance had been followed completely at No 10. 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.”

Although Johnson’s allies have dismissed the privileges committee inquiry as “a witch-hunt”, many Conservative MPs are dismayed that he has been, in the words of one, “blowing up” Rishi Sunak’s attempts to get the government back on track after a chaotic year.

The prime minister has said he will allow Tory MPs to make decisions “as individuals”, giving them a free vote on any sanctions imposed on Johnson when the committee publishes its final report after Easter, but any vote could threaten to split the party.

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The committee, which is chaired by the veteran Labour MP Harriet Harman but has a Conservative majority, said in its interim report earlier this month that Johnson may have misled parliament on four separate occasions.

They said the evidence “strongly suggests” breaches of guidance should have been “obvious” to the then prime minister and his aides at the time of the gatherings, as he drew up the rules and announced them publicly.

In his dossier, Johnson responded: “If it was ‘obvious’ to me that the rules and guidance were not being followed, it would have been equally obvious to dozens of others who also attended the gatherings I did.” He said most of them did not consider these events to have broken the rules either.

He accepted that his denials to parliament turned out to be inaccurate but said that he corrected the record at the “earliest opportunity”. It took him six months to do so, after the senior civil servant Sue Gray published her final report.

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Johnson’s defence, prepared by a legal team headed by Lord Pannick KC, has been funded by the taxpayer at a cost of up to £220,000. His lawyer will be permitted to sit alongside him during the hearing, but not to answer on his behalf.

Johnson has suggested that the committee has no “smoking gun” that indicates he intentionally misled MPs, writing: “There is not a single document that indicates that I received any warning or advice that any event broke or may have broken the rules of guidance.”

The only exception, he said, were the assertions of his “discredited” former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, which were not supported by any documentation and should be ignored because he had done everything possible to remove him from power.

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In a blog post on Tuesday, Cummings said his former boss would try to “lie his way to safety” during the hearing, indicating that he did in fact know that the parties at No 10 were in breach of the rules.

In the document, Johnson repeatedly pointed the finger of blame at his Downing Street aides. Although he said there was “nothing reckless or unreasonable” about relying on their assurances, he accepted “it is clear now, those assurances were wrong”.

He also highlighted what his supporters regard as extenuating circumstances, with officials “working together around the clock to fight Covid” in the “old, cramped London townhouse” of No 10. Critics have pointed out that NHS staff on the frontline of fighting the pandemic got no such special dispensation for work parties.

Johnson criticised the “partisan tone and content” of the interim report, and accused the committee of going beyond its “remit” to consider breaches of guidance as well as law, arguing this was “obviously inappropriate, impermissible and unfair”. The committee, which has been advised by a retired court of appeal judge, has defended its stance.