He hasn’t been Britain’s prime minister for almost a year, but Boris Johnson found himself back in the limelight Wednesday addressing allegations from MPs that he misled Parliament during his time in office.
Mr. Johnson appeared before a parliamentary committee that is investigating whether he lied to the House of Commons about more than a dozen social gatherings at Downing Street in 2020 and 2021, when Britain was under COVID-19 restrictions.
During a lengthy and at times testy appearance, he insisted he did not knowingly mislead MPs and that many of the events in question were necessary work functions.
“I am here to say to you, hand on heart, I did not lie to the House,” he told the Committee of Privileges. “When those statements were made they were made in good faith and on the basis of what I knew and believed at the time.” He added: “People who say that we were ‘partying’ in lockdown simply do not know what they are talking about.”
Mr. Johnson has been dogged for months by allegations that he and his officials repeatedly broke lockdown rules in 2020 and 2021. A separate probe, completed in May, 2022, found that 16 events were held at Downing Street during those two years and that Mr. Johnson attended half a dozen of the gatherings. He, along with 125 other officials, including current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who was chancellor of the exchequer at the time, were each fined £50 by the police for breaching pandemic restrictions.
The scandal was one reason Conservative MPs pushed Mr. Johnson out as party leader and prime minister last July and replaced him with Liz Truss. He briefly considered running for the leadership again after Ms. Truss resigned last October but decided against entering the race, which Mr. Sunak won.
The Committee of Privileges is examining Mr. Johnson’s response to questions in the House of Commons in 2021, when he repeatedly told MPs that all COVID-19 guidance had been followed by him and his staff.
Under parliamentary rules, government ministers can be sanctioned if they deliberately mislead MPs. The sanctions range from a written apology to suspension from the chamber for 10 days or longer. A lengthy suspension would also trigger a recall petition, and a by-election would be held if 10 per cent of Mr. Johnson’s constituents called for a vote.
The committee has already concluded in a preliminary report that “the evidence strongly suggests that breaches of guidance would have been obvious to Mr. Johnson at the time he was at the gatherings.” The evidence cited included photographs of Mr. Johnson drinking during a couple of gatherings for senior staff members who were leaving their jobs.
On Wednesday, Mr. Johnson acknowledged that his statements in Parliament proved to be incorrect and apologized. He also said he could have been clearer in his answers at the time.
When confronted with the photographs, he said he’d attended those gatherings solely to motivate staff and thank the senior advisers who had resigned.
“That is not a party,” he said, referring to a photo of him holding up a drink in what appears to be a toast. “What I was doing was thanking staff or thanking one individual in particular for their contribution, and I believe that was my job.”
“I do not believe that you can conceivably find me guilty of wittingly misleading Parliament on the basis of the evidence you have assembled.”
His responses drew skepticism from some of the seven MPs on the committee. “The guidance does not say you can have a thank you party and as many people in the room as you like,” Tory MP Bernard Jenkin told Mr. Johnson. “You think it’s very important to thank people. The guidance doesn’t say that.”
The committee is expected to issue its final report in a few weeks. It will make a recommendation to the House of Commons, which will have to approve any sanction.
No matter what happens, Mr. Johnson is unlikely to fade away. He remains a backbench MP and has been nominated to run as a candidate in his London-area riding of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in the next general election, expected in 2025.
On Wednesday he also voted against Mr. Sunak’s agreement with the European Union regarding post-Brexit trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The deal is an attempt to revise a protocol Mr. Johnson struck with the EU in 2020 that essentially tied Northern Ireland to the bloc’s regulations in order to ensure unfettered trade with Ireland, an EU member.
The protocol has proven controversial, and Mr. Sunak said his agreement, called the Windsor framework, would resolve the problems. But Mr. Johnson has said the framework is inadequate. Nonetheless, MPs approved it Wednesday by a margin of 515 votes to 29.