Boris Johnson has been told that “the gig is up” by a fellow Conservative MP, as MPs agreed to refer the UK prime minister for a parliamentary investigation into whether he lied to the House of Commons about Downing Street parties during coronavirus lockdowns.
The British prime minister took a risk in travelling to India while parliament decided whether he should be investigated by the privileges committee.
He put his trust in fellow MPs to vote against a motion to trigger an inquiry into whether he lied to MPs over his knowledge of Downing Street lockdown parties. The motion was proposed by the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, and passed unopposed.
The damage to Mr Johnson’s authority, which had received a boost from his leadership in Ukraine war, could become beyond repair if the committee finds that he deliberately misled parliament.
That moment of jeopardy came a step closer today after the influential Tory backbench MP, Steve Baker, told the Commons that “the prime minister now should be long gone” and that he “should just know the gig’s up”.
It was an abrupt change from the leading Brexiteer’s view on Tuesday that Mr Johnson’s parliamentary apology over his police fine for breaking lockdown rules by hosting a Downing Street birthday party was “contrite enough”.
Losing Mr Baker’s support could prove significant for Mr Johnson as it means former Brexiteer loyalists might join the Labour motion, which is now a free vote with no whip.
The lack of support for the prime minister was underlined before the debate started, when the government withdrew an amendment that would have scuppered the motion as whips realised they faced a revolt by Conservative MPs.
While the Russian invasion of Ukraine had put the challenge to Mr Johnson’s leadership into abeyance — just at the point when momentum was highest — the "partygate" issue has firmly returned to the agenda after Mr Johnson’s police fine last week for breaching Covid rules when he attended a gathering in Downing Street on his birthday.
The challenge to his authority is set to continue, with further fines possible after officers investigate six other parties allegedly involving Mr Johnson. But the Metropolitan Police have confirmed they will issue no more fines until after the UK's local elections on May 5.
However, once their investigation concludes, the full report by Sue Gray — the senior civil servant whose original partygate inquiry prompted police involvement — will be published.
That would then mean the rarely used privileges committee could allow its six MPs to examine the 300 photographs of Downing Street parties taken either from mobile phones or the official photographer.
Although Mr Johnson has a working majority of 75, if the numbers of those voting for the motion or abstaining are significant, it could reinvigorate the momentum to unseat him.
Those MPs may well have been persuaded by an even-handed statement made by Sir Keir, in which he urged them to “defend the simple principle of honesty, integrity and telling the truth” in politics.
Mr Johnson had “repeatedly, deliberately and routinely” misled the Commons over his claims about lockdown parties, he said.
“If we don’t pass this motion,” Sir Keir said, “we’re all complicit in allowing the public to think we’re all the same: nobody tells the truth.”
As well as being the first British prime minister to have received a police fine for breaking the law, he will also be the first to be investigated for contempt in allegedly lying to parliament.