Boris Johnson pressed on misleading parliament over 'partygate'

UK prime minister faces testing allegations as Sue Gray report is completed

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. PA
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Boris Johnson faced a Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday dominated by the "partygate" affair with doubts over losing their leader appearing to have focused minds among Tory MPs - some were referring to the seriousness of the events as "nothing more than a parking fine".

Each time someone from the opposition called for his resignation, roars of support buoyed Mr Johnson and there was no undercutting interventions from his own side to trip the party leader up.

Senior civil servant Sue Gray is getting ready to deliver her report on alleged rule-breaking parties at Downing Street, with some speculation that it could be released as soon as today. Mr Johnson spoke at the weekly question session and faced a series of allegations he had misled MPs from Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition.

Mr Johnson's political future seems to be hanging in the balance, with other MPs furious at reports of Downing Street lockdown rule-breaking.

Every seat in the galleries overlooking the Common’s chamber was taken, with more than 100 journalists looking down on proceedings for each twitch and grimace from the assembled MPs.

As questions on Northern Ireland came to an end, Mr Johnson noted that the coming anniversary of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry was a dark stain for the UK government.

Pushing his hand through his freshly trimmed blond hair, Mr Johnson rose and fell on his seat on the front bench, appearing confident but tired.

There were some chuckles when Mr Johnson outlined his diary for the day, stating he had met “colleagues and others …”. It is expected the prime minister will be interviewed by the Metropolitan Police over the alleged breaking of lockdown rules.

Before Prime Minister's Questions there was a mixture of nerves and defiance among the government benches. “He has to go, this has gone too far for too long,” one former junior minister told The National.

Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to take part in Prime Minister's Questions at the House of Commons. AFP

Another Conservative MP called for some perspective in the commentary. “For goodness sake, we need to get a sense of perspective on this. Yes he did wrong but it’s not Watergate,” he said, referring to the scandal that toppled former US president Richard Nixon.

The MP, who represents a West Country constituency, said during a meeting with rural constituents that although many were angry with Mr Johnson they said they would still vote for him. “There’s just no one with his electability to replace him currently,” he added.

Inside Portcullis House, the large atrium building where politicians and advisers gather, there was a heightened atmosphere of uncertainty and hurried conversations taking place in quiet corners.

“Whips, the whips are about,” said one rotund MP, looking nervously about for the government enforcers.

Punchy appearance

Roars of support buoyed Mr Johnson in an extremely confident and combative appearance

The fear for the government is that once Ms Gray’s report is released then the required number of 54 letters of no confidence will be put forward, triggering a Conservative Party leadership election. An Ipsos MORI poll released on Wednesday showed that lack of faith in politics has become a major new concern for the public since the “partygate” allegations emerged. The issue was cited by 25 per cent or respondents, second only to coronavirus at 43 per cent.

There are many who believe Mr Johnson will ride out the report and subsequent police investigation only to be dislodged later in the year. “The Tories are not a sentimental lot,” said one political insider. “If Boris appears to have lost his electability then he will be out because that’s why so many of his MPs supported him.”

A protester in Parliament Square, London. PA

Sir Keir Starmer noted Mr Johnson's changing narrative on lockdown-era gatherings in the seat of government. “The ministerial code says that ministers who knowingly mislead parliament will be expected to offer their resignation,” he said. “Does the prime minister believe that applies to him?”

Mr Johnson said there would be a full reckoning when the process of reports and investigations came to a conclusion. “Let me tell the House that I think he is inviting a question about an investigation which is — as you know, Mr Speaker, I cannot comment — and which he, as a lawyer, will know that I can’t comment on.”

In the coming hours, it will become clear whether Conservative MPs back their leader or if there will be another intervention, such as that from Conservative MP David Davis last week, who told Mr Johnson: “In the name of God, go.”

Ms Gray, who works for the Cabinet Office, is investigating claims that government staff held parties involving alcohol and non-socially distanced events while Britain was under tight coronavirus restrictions in 2020 and 2021.

Mr Johnson’s office has promised to publish her report in full as soon as it becomes available.

The prime minster is also facing a police investigation into the alleged parties. London’s Metropolitan Police force said it is looking at “a number of events” at Mr Johnson’s Downing Street office.

In another extraordinary Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson revelled in the support of his party. Several times the roof was raised with cheers as the prime minister responded to Labour calls for his resignation.

In response Mr Johnson grew more assured over the half hour, delivering a confident and combative performance.

Given the support that he appears to have won back, it seems that, for now, Mr Johnson has appeased many of his rebellious backbenchers.

Boris Johnson under pressure – in pictures

Updated: January 26, 2022, 3:46 PM
Punchy appearance

Roars of support buoyed Mr Johnson in an extremely confident and combative appearance