Boris Johnson endures high-stakes grilling over 'partygate'

A protester shows a poster near Parliament in London, Wednesday, March 22, 2023.
A protester shows a poster near Parliament in London, Wednesday, March 22, 2023. Copyright AP Photo
By Euronews with AFP, AP
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The former British prime minister has been giving testimony Wednesday, to a parliamentary enquiry into Downing Street parties during the pandemic.

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Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been giving testimony Wednesday, to a parliamentary enquiry into Downing Street parties during the pandemic.

Boris Johnson, who resigned in July after a series of scandals including partygate, promised to tell “the whole truth”, placing his hand on a Bible at the start of the four-hour hearing.

Johnson denies deliberately lying, but if found to have done so, he could face suspension or even lose his seat in Parliament.

He told the committee that events that broke the government's rules were wrong and “I bitterly regret it,” but added: “hand on heart… I did not lie to the House.”

Johnson acknowledges that his insistence that the rules were followed at all times turned out to be untrue. But he says he never “knowingly or recklessly” misled Parliament.

“You have found nothing to show that I was warned in advance that events in No. 10 (Downing St.) were illegal,” he told the committee in an opening statement.

A political career on the line?

Expected to last several hours, the hearing is a moment of peril for a politician whose career has been a roller coaster of scandals and comebacks. If the House of Commons Committee of Privileges concludes Johnson lied deliberately, he could be suspended or even lose his seat in Parliament.

That would likely end hopes of one more comeback for the 58-year-old politician, who led the Conservative Party to a landslide victory in 2019 but was forced out by his own party in July 2022 after getting mired in scandals over money, ethics and judgement.

Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP
A protester holds a painting depicting Boris Johnson outside Downing Street in London, Wednesday, March 22, 2023.Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP

In an interim report this month, the committee — made up of Conservative and opposition lawmakers — said evidence strongly suggested that it would have been ”obvious” to Johnson that gatherings in his Downing Street offices in 2020 and 2021 broke COVID-19 lockdown rules.

Johnson acknowledged on Tuesday that his repeated reassurances to Parliament that the rules were followed at all times “did not turn out to be correct.” But he said he “did not intentionally or recklessly mislead” lawmakers.

Blind trust in his “trusted advisers”

In a dossier of written evidence, Johnson said it never occurred to him that the gatherings — which variously included cake, wine, cheese and a “secret Santa” festive gift exchange — broke the restrictions on socialising that his own government had imposed on the country.

He said he “honestly believed” the five events he attended, including a send-off for a staffer and his own surprise birthday party, were “lawful work gatherings.”

”No cake was eaten, and no one even sang ‘Happy Birthday,’” he said of the 19 June 2020 celebration.

Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP
A protester holds a painting depicting Boris Johnson outside Downing Street in London, Wednesday, March 22, 2023.Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP

Johnson said that he was assured by “trusted advisers” that neither the legally binding rules nor the government's coronavirus guidance had been broken.

However, several senior officials denied that they had advised Johnson that guidance had always been followed. 

The icing on the cake

Police eventually issued 126 fines over the late-night soirees, boozy parties and “wine time Fridays,” including one to Johnson, and the scandal helped hasten the end of premiership.

Revelations about the gatherings sparked anger among Britons who had followed rules imposed to kerb the spread of the coronavirus, unable to visit friends and family or even say goodbye to dying relatives in hospitals.

Johnson and his supporters have also questioned the impartiality of Grey, because she has now accepted a job as chief of staff to the leader of the opposition Labour Party.

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If the committee finds Johnson in contempt, it could recommend punishments ranging from an oral apology to suspension from Parliament, though any punishment would have to be approved by the whole House of Commons.

A suspension of 10 days or more would allow his constituents in the suburban London seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip to petition for a special election to replace Johnson as a member of Parliament.

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