LONDON (AP) – Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday insisted on being “hand on heart” that he had never lied to lawmakers about rule-breaking governing parties during the COVID-19 pandemic, and built a robust defense at a hearing on that could wreak havoc or even end his tumultuous political career.
The House of Commons Standards Committee questioned Johnson about misleading statements he had made to Parliament about a number of parties in government buildings that had broken lockdown rules. If the committee concludes he lied knowingly, he could face a suspension or even lose his seat in the House of Commons.
Johnson came out swinging and, after taking an oath on a Bible, told the committee, “Hand on heart… I wasn’t lying to the house.”
“If anyone thinks I’ve been partying during lockdown, they’re dead wrong,” he said.
Johnson also criticized the committee, which includes four Conservative members and three from opposition parties, saying it was acting as “investigators, prosecutors, judges and juries”.
The hour-long hearing is a dangerous moment for a politician whose career has been a roller coaster of scandals and comebacks.
If the House of Commons Privileges Committee concludes that Johnson willfully lied, it would likely dashed 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 expelled from his own party in July 2022 after being embroiled in scandals involving money, ethics and judgement.
After reports of the parties surfaced in December 2021, Johnson repeatedly assured lawmakers that he and his staff had always played by the rules.
That turned out to be wrong, Johnson conceded. But he said it was “what I honestly believed in at the time.”
“I apologize for inadvertently misleading this House, but to say I did it recklessly or on purpose is utterly wrong,” he said.
In an interim report this month, the committee said evidence strongly suggested it would have been “obvious” to Johnson that gatherings at his Downing Street offices in 2020 and 2021 had broken COVID-19 lockdown rules .
But Johnson said it never occurred to him that the events – which variously included cake, wine, cheese and a celebratory gift exchange from “Secret Santa” – broke the restrictions on socializing his own government is imposing on the country had.
He said he “honestly believes” the five events he’s attended, including a farewell for an employee and his own surprise birthday party, are “legitimate work meetings” designed to boost morale among overworked employees who work with cope with a deadly pandemic.
He said that at the birthday party on June 19, 2020, no one sang “Happy Birthday” and the “Union Jack cake stayed in its Tupperware box unnoticed by me.”
Johnson said “trusted advisors” had reassured him that neither the legally binding rules nor the government’s coronavirus guidelines had been breached.
However, several senior officials denied advising Johnson that the guidance was always followed. Written evidence released by the committee on Wednesday showed Chief Private Secretary Martin Reynolds said he had “questioned whether it was realistic to argue that all guidance had been followed at all times.”
Police eventually issued 126 fines for the late-night soirees, boozy parties and “wine-time Fridays,” including one against Johnson, and the scandal helped hasten the end of the prime minister’s office.
Revelations about the gatherings sparked anger among Britons, who had been following the government’s pandemic rules and have been unable to visit friends and family or even say goodbye to dying relatives in hospitals. Police fined thousands of people for violating restrictions that, at worst, prohibited residents from contact with anyone outside their household
Johnson said he was later “really shocked” by the government’s rule-breaking, which was uncovered by police and senior official Sue Gray, who was leading an investigation into Partygate.
Johnson and his supporters have also questioned Gray’s impartiality now that she has accepted a job as chief of staff for the leader of the opposition Labor Party.
If the committee finds that Johnson is being disregarded, it could recommend penalties ranging from an oral apology to suspension from Parliament, although any sanction would have to be approved by the full House of Commons.
A suspension of 10 days or more would allow his constituents in the London suburbs of Uxbridge and South Ruislip to request a special election to replace Johnson as MP.
Jill Lawless, The Associated Press