Boris Johnson will plead ignorance yet again this week as he prepares to bat away accusations that he lied to parliament over Downing Street’s illegal lockdown parties.
On Wednesday, the former PM will face a live televised grilling in front of the Commons Privileges Committee on whether he knowingly misled MPs over Partygate and whether he was therefore in contempt of parliament.
The investigation in question isn’t about whether or not Johnson attended any parties, or whether these parties broke lockdown rules. This matter of whether widespread rule-breaking had taken place was already settled in May last year, when senior civil servant Sue Gray’s inquiry concluded with a big fat “yes”. And Johnson, along with his wife and his successor Rishi Sunak, have the police fine to show for it.
Rather, this week’s grilling is all about whether Johnson realised at the time that the parties in question were illegal – and whether he deliberately misled MPs in December 2021 when he told the Commons that no lockdown rules had been broken.
It looks as if Johnson is still set to make the defence that he wasn’t quite up to speed with his own government’s rules and he sincerely believed that these parties counted as work events.
The PM is expected to publish a “compelling dossier” ahead of Wednesday’s showdown in which he will provide his evidence that he didn’t knowingly mislead parliament. Drawn up by his lawyers, the 60-page document will include WhatsApp messages from civil servants and No 10 staff, offering evidence that he was advised a “workplace exemption” was in place, covering the parties.
On Wednesday, the former PM will undergo four hours of questioning from 2pm, before the Committee, chaired by Labour’s Harriet Harman, and made up of a cross-party group of seven MPs. The committee has been gathering evidence since last April.
How solid a defence can we expect Johnson to make?
Members of his legal team appear confident. One told the Telegraph: “People will be surprised by the quantity and quality of the evidence in his favour.”
The controversy surrounding Sue Gray could work in his favour too. Johnson is expected to claim that the committee is basing its findings on a report which has since been discredited, in light of news that the supposedly neutral civil servant who led the inquiry is set to become Keir Starmer’s chief of staff. It also comes as the Mail reports that Gray was in talks with Labour about joining the party as early as November, while she was still advising the government over the inquiry.
Gray aside, Boris’ allies are attempting to discredit this upcoming investigation too, painting it as “witch hunt.” Harman is biased, they claim, and many of the committee members have already made up their minds before the hearing has even begun.
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If the committee does conclude that the PM lied, there could be some big consequences for Johnson – ones which will likely rule out any possibility of a return to high office once and for all.
If he’s found to be in contempt of parliament, the committee can recommend a punishment which MPs will then vote on. Downing Street sources say MPs will be given a free vote – meaning they won’t be “whipped” to vote a certain way – but the resulting punishment could well be Johnson losing his Uxbridge seat, prompting a by-election.
On the bright side, at least the cash strapped ex-PM won’t be out of pocket from legal bills. Since the investigation covers a period when Johnson was in office, the £222,000 he has spent so far on advice from lawyers is being footed by none other than (you guessed it) the taxpayer.
The Liberal Democrats have condemned the use of thousands of pounds of public money to defend “a lying lawbreaker who disgraced the office of prime minister,” labelling it a “cost-of-lying crisis.”
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