Boris Johnson has given the UK Parliament his “wholehearted apology” for breaching lockdown rules after he was fined for attending an illegal party in Downing Street.
The British prime minister was no more than 30 seconds into his speech when the first shout of “resign” could be heard from the opposition benches followed by “you’re an embarrassment” and “just go”.
But Mr Johnson, 57, was met with a chorus of support from Conservative benches when he entered the Commons chamber that suggested his position, for now, might be safe.
That support will be important when MPs vote on Thursday to decide whether Mr Johnson becomes the first prime minister to merit a formal investigation by Parliament’s Privileges Committee.
But his words of contrition, repeated throughout the hour-long address to MPs, appeared enough to placate the backbenchers whose votes will be needed to stave off the investigation.
“I take this opportunity on the first available sitting day to repeat my wholehearted apology to the House,” he said, admitting that “people had a right to expect better of their prime minister”.
The apology came after the prime minister, his wife Carrie and the Chancellor Rishi Sunak paid fines imposed by police over a gathering held on June 19, 2020, to mark Mr Johnson’s 56th birthday, where up to 30 people sang Happy Birthday in the Cabinet Room.
The fines were among more than 50 fixed penalties imposed by police following the Partygate scandal that involved a string of unlawful celebrations in Downing Street at a time when the country was in strict lockdown.
Mr Johnson’s moment of greatest jeopardy has been over whether he misled or lied to the House — by convention a resigning offence — when he told MPs in December last year that he had not attended any illegal parties.
On Tuesday he said “it did not occur to me then” that the gathering “could amount to a breach of the rules”.
“I repeat that was my mistake, and I apologise for it unreservedly,” he said. Despite murmurings from supporters that the fine was not merited, Mr Johnson said he respected “the outcome of the police investigation”.
He added that this was “still under way”, which leaves open the prospect that he could be fined for other potential breaches.
But for now Mr Johnson appears to have succeeded in another great escape by avoiding a vote of confidence in his leadership, that would be called if 54 MPs — 15 per cent of his party — submit letters seeking the poll.
In part that was due to the timely announcement of the British immigration policy of sending illegal asylum seekers to the African country of Rwanda for processing and potential settlement. The measure has been welcomed by hardline MPs in the Conservative Party who might otherwise seek Mr Johnson’s removal.
However, it is the invasion of Ukraine that has proven to be the main reason he has escaped further censure, allowing him to demonstrate qualities of a wartime leader.
Just over two minutes into his apology, he mentioned Ukraine and the “valour and sacrifice” of its people.
“Our long term goal must be to strengthen and fortify Ukraine, to the point where Russia will never dare to invade again,” he said, to cheers.
He had begun his statement with reference to a “virtual meeting” with world leaders on Ukraine, allowing the mention of presidents’ names to give him a statesman aura.
That sheen will be further enhanced when he leaves for a two-day tour of India later in the week, making him conveniently absent when MPs vote on his censure.
But Mr Johnson is not clear of danger yet. If the Conservatives take a battering in May 5 local elections more letters might go in. He could yet be fined again for Partygate. The full Cabinet Office investigation by Sue Gray has still to be published. That all lies in the future. Today, Mr Johnson remains in command.