Boris Johnson did not knowingly mislead Parliament over lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street, a senior Cabinet minister has said.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris came out in defence of the former prime minister after the “partygate” inquiry said evidence suggested breaches of Covid-19 rules on gatherings in No 10 would have been “obvious” to Mr Johnson.
Speaking to Sky News on Sunday, Mr Heaton-Harris, who served as Mr Johnson’s chief whip, said he “does not believe for one second” that the former Tory leader had misled MPs.
Asked if he considered Mr Johnson to be a man of integrity, he said he '100 per cent” believed this to be accurate.
“I do not believe for one second Boris knowingly misled Parliament,” he said.
“I don’t think he will be found to have misled Parliament.
“In this country, you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty. I’m absolutely convinced Boris did not knowingly mislead Parliament.”
His public support for Mr Johnson came after the cross-party privileges committee on Friday said: “The evidence strongly suggests that breaches of guidance would have been obvious to Mr Johnson at the time he was at the gatherings.
“There is evidence that those who were advising Mr Johnson about what to say to the press and in the House were themselves struggling to contend that some gatherings were within the rules.”
The committee, which is conducting a probe into whether Mr Johnson gave inaccurate information to politicians, is preparing for a live showdown with the former Tory leader this month.
Mr Heaton-Harris continued with his defence of his former boss during an interview with the BBC on Sunday.
He was pressed on whether his view was the official line of Rishi Sunak’s government.
“I don’t think there’s a government official position,” he replied. “There’s a parliamentary process going on. And I think we would wait to see what came out of that parliamentary process.”
The committee said the House of Commons may have been misled at least four times by Mr Johnson.
Mr Johnson has claimed the inquiry’s preliminary report showed he was being vindicated.
He and his allies have also sought to cast doubt on civil service investigator Sue Gray’s own report into events in Downing Street after her surprise move to Keir Starmer’s office.
According to written evidence in the committee’s interim report, Mr Johnson remarked that a mid-pandemic leaving party in No 10 was “probably the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now”.
WhatsApp messages given to the inquiry show advisers “struggling” to understand how parties were within the rules, with one conceding an excuse “blows another great gaping hole in the PM’s account”.