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Boris Johnson faces the prospect of a parliamentary investigation into whether he lied to MPs about Downing Street parties during the coronavirus lockdowns.
In response to a backbench revolt, ministers abandoned attempts to force Conservative MPs to vote for a delay in setting up any investigation, meaning it is now expected to be approved on Thursday – although it will not begin until police inquiries have concluded.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the Prime Minister had tried to “cover up his misdeeds” by taking advantage of the Commons convention not to call someone a liar.
“The Prime Minister has stood before this House and said things that are not true, safe in the knowledge that he will not be accused of lying because he can’t be,” Sir Keir said.
“He has stood at that despatch box and point blank denied rule-breaking took place, when it did.
“As he did so, he was hoping to gain extra protection from our good faith that no Prime Minister would deliberately mislead the House.”
MPs will decide whether a Commons committee should look into allegations that Mr Johnson misled the House with his repeated denials about Downing Street parties during the coronavirus lockdown.
The Prime Minister will miss the Commons vote on a Labour-led motion calling for the Privileges Committee investigation because he is on an official visit to India.
Tory MPs had initially been ordered to back a Government amendment which would defer any decision on referring the matter to the committee until after the conclusion of the Met Police inquiry.
But in a late U-turn shortly before the debate began, Commons Leader Mark Spencer said there would be a free vote for Tory MPs.
It follows speculation at Westminster that Tory MPs were not prepared to back the Government’s attempt to kick the issue into the long grass.
The scale of Tory unease was set out by Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee chairman William Wragg, who confirmed he had submitted a letter of no confidence in Mr Johnson’s leadership.
“I cannot reconcile myself to the Prime Minister’s continued leadership of our country and the Conservative Party,” he told MPs.
In a scathing speech, Mr Wragg said: “There can be few colleagues on this side of the House I would contend who are truly enjoying being Members of Parliament at the moment.
“It is utterly depressing to be asked to defend the indefensible. Each time part of us withers.”
Former minister Steve Baker, an influential organiser on the Tory benches, said Mr Johnson “should be long gone”.
“Really, the Prime Minister should just know the gig’s up,” Mr Baker, who was a prominent Brexiteer involved in ousting Theresa May, said.
Asked on the first day of his trade mission to India whether he knowingly or unknowingly misled Parliament, Mr Johnson said: “Of course not.”
He told reporters: “I’m very keen for every possible form of scrutiny and the House of Commons can do whatever it wants to do.
“But all I would say is I don’t think that should happen until the investigation is completed.”
A senior Government source sought to explain the late change in the whipping arrangements, saying: “We tabled an amendment last night because we wanted to be explicit about ensuring Sue Gray is able to complete and publish her report without any further delay, as well as allow the Metropolitan Police to conclude their investigations.
“We now recognise that – in practice – this is almost certainly likely to be the case and therefore we are happy for the Labour motion to go through if that is the will of the House.”
But deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said: “This is humiliating for Conservative MPs who were being pressured to vote for the Government’s cover-up amendment.
“The Government knew they couldn’t win this, the Prime Minister is bang to rights.”
Mr Johnson’s aides are braced for him to receive multiple fines, having already been handed one fixed-penalty notice for the gathering on his 56th birthday.
He is thought to have been at six of the 12 events under investigation by Scotland Yard.
The motion being voted on by MPs suggests that comments “including but not limited to” four separate remarks in the Commons “appear to amount to misleading the House”.
The highlighted comments are:
– On December 1 2021, Mr Johnson told MPs “that all guidance was followed in No 10”.
– On December 8 2021, the Prime Minister told the Commons: “I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken.”
– Also on December 8 2021, he said: “I am sickened myself and furious about that, but I repeat what I have said to him: I have been repeatedly assured that the rules were not broken.”
– Finally on the same date: “The guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.”
The motion, tabled by leading figures from seven opposition parties, says that the committee’s inquiry should not begin in earnest until the Metropolitan Police have concluded their own investigation into lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street and Whitehall.