'I did not lie': Boris Johnson faces grilling by MPs over 'Partygate'
Ex-British PM could face suspension or even lose his seat in Parliament
Former British prime minister Boris Johnson insisted "hand on heart" Wednesday that he never lied to lawmakers about rule-breaking government parties during the COVID-19 pandemic, during a three-hour hearing that could damage or even end his political career.
The House of Commons committee of privileges questioned Johnson over misleading statements he made to Parliament about a slew of parties in government buildings that breached lockdown rules. If the committee concludes that he deliberately lied, he could face suspension or even lose his seat in the Commons.
Johnson mounted a robust and spirited defence, telling the committee after taking an oath on a Bible: "Hand on heart ... I did not lie to the House."
"If anybody thinks I was partying during lockdown, they are completely wrong," he said.
Johnson also criticized the committee, which has four Conservative members and three from opposition parties, saying it was acting as "investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury."
The three-hour hearing was 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, it would likely end hopes of a return to power for the 58-year-old politician, who led the Conservative Party to a landslide victory in 2019.
He was forced out by his own party in July 2022 after getting mired in scandals over money, ethics and judgment.
After reports of the parties emerged in December 2021, Johnson repeatedly assured lawmakers that he and his staff had always followed the rules.
That turned out to be wrong, Johnson acknowledged. But he said it was "what I honestly believed at the time."
"I apologize for inadvertently misleading this House, but to say that I did it recklessly or deliberately is completely untrue," he said.
In an interim report this month, the committee 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.
But Johnson said it never occurred to him that the events — which variously included cake, wine, cheese and a "secret Santa" festive gift exchange — broke the restrictions on socializing 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" intended to boost morale among overworked staff members coping with a deadly pandemic.
He said that at the June 19, 2020 birthday celebration, no one sang Happy Birthday and the "Union Jack cake remained in its Tupperware box, unnoticed by me."
Johnson said "trusted advisers" assured him that neither the legally binding rules nor the government's coronavirus guidance had been broken.
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.
"I believe we were following the guidance and in spite of the pictures that we've all looked at, which seem to show a lack of perfect social distancing, I believe that what we were doing was in conformity with the rules," he said under questioning. "I was there. And I believe that the behaviour was reasonable, given the constraints."
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 his premiership.
Revelations about the gatherings sparked anger among Britons who had followed rules imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, unable to visit friends and family or even say goodbye to dying relatives in hospitals.
Johnson said he was assured by "trusted advisers" that no rules had been broken — assurances that turned out to be wrong. He said he was later "genuinely shocked" by the rule-breaking uncovered by police and by senior civil servant Sue Gray, who led an investigation into "Partygate."
Johnson and his supporters have also questioned the impartiality of Gray, because she has now accepted a job as chief of staff to the leader of the opposition Labour Party.
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.
With files from CBC News