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Boris Johnson speaks during prime minister's questions. (Photo: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor via PA Media)
Fears of a Tory rebellion have prompted the government to attempt to delay an investigation into whether Boris Johnson misled parliament over partygate.
MPs on Thursday were set to vote on holding a parliamentary probe into the prime minister’s statements about Westminster lockdown rule-breaking.
But some Conservative MPs were thought to have been uncomfortable about voting against the motion, which was tabled by the Labour Party.
Now, despite the comfortable Tory majority that could withstand a minor rebellion, the government has now tabled an amendment that gives their discontented MPs a way out.
The amendment states that the PM has “accepted mistakes were made” in relation to events in No 10 and the Cabinet Office while coronavirus regulations were in force, and has apologised to the House of Commons and to the country.
But it says consideration of whether to refer his comments on partygate to the privileges committee of MPs should be taken after the Metropolitan Police investigation has concluded and the Sue Gray report has been published.
It is understood that all Tory MPs will be ordered – via a three-line whip – to support the amendment, and sets up a Commons showdown on party loyalty.
A government spokesperson said “The government has tabled an amendment to Labour’s motion which says that consideration of this matter should take place after the conclusion of the police investigation, and the publication of the cabinet office report, allowing MPs to have all the facts at their disposal.”
The move is set against fears over the echoes of the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal and the damage it caused Conservatives.
Paterson resigned as a Tory MP in November after the prime minister was forced to abandon a plan to prevent his immediate suspension by launching a review of the entire parliamentary disciplinary system.
A Labour source said: “Tory whips obviously knew that they couldn’t vote this down. They clearly haven’t learnt a thing from the mess they got into over Owen Paterson. Boris Johnson is trying to rig the rules to deflect from his own law breaking. Any Tory MP who votes for this is voting for a cover up.”
The proposed investigation would consider whether the prime minister’s conduct amounts to contempt of parliament.
The motion suggests that comments “including but not limited to” four separate remarks in the commons “appear to amount to misleading the house”.
The privileges committee has wide-ranging powers to investigate whether Johnson misled Parliament, crucially including the ability to compel the release of reports, documents and photos linked to the partygate scandal.
If it is found the prime minister’s conduct did amount to contempt by deliberately misleading the House then it could recommend sanctions – although it is unclear what penalties could be applied.
However, the ministerial code is clear that ministers who deliberately mislead the House are expected to quit.
Johnson has already received one fixed-penalty notice for attending his birthday party in the cabinet room in June 2020 but is thought to have been at half of the 12 gatherings under investigation by Scotland Yard.
The prime minister will not vote on the motion on Thursday as he will be on an official visit to India.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.