Boris Johnson will be summoned to televised hearings within weeks as the House of Commons privileges committee investigates whether the former UK prime minister lied to MPs about the “partygate” affair.
The seven person cross-party committee of MPs held its first meeting of the new year on Wednesday to pore over a cache of information about illegal gatherings in Downing Street during Covid-19 lockdowns.
The documents were released by the Cabinet Office in late November, soon after Rishi Sunak became prime minister.
The committee, which has a Tory majority but is chaired by Labour veteran Harriet Harman, has not yet held public hearings. But the next stage of its inquiry will include it issuing invitations — including to Johnson — to give public evidence, with each person given two weeks’ notice.
Meanwhile, Johnson on Tuesday night laid down challenges to Sunak as he unveiled a portrait of himself during an event at the Carlton Club, with some Tory MPs believing the former prime minister is eyeing a comeback.
“He’s keeping his options open — that’s what he always does,” said one former minister who is close to Johnson. But a critical report by the privileges committee could be a serious setback for the former PM.
Some Tory MPs have speculated that Johnson’s supporters could begin agitating for a return of their political hero if Sunak fails to turn round the Conservatives’ fortunes ahead of this autumn’s party conference.
In his speech at the Carlton Club, Johnson urged colleagues to “keep backing the government” but also laid out objectives he wants Sunak to honour.
They included cutting taxes, extending home ownership, making use of Brexit “freedoms” and passing legislation to scrap the Northern Ireland protocol, part of Britain’s EU exit treaty that Johnson himself negotiated.
“Never give in, keep fighting, keep backing the government, keep making the case for levelling up, for opportunities and for a dynamic low tax, global Britain,” he said.
However, senior government ministers played down the prospect of a Johnson comeback, noting that the former prime minister had decided not to challenge Sunak for the leadership last autumn and was now making well-paid speeches.
“Most MPs recognise that party unity is the key to giving us any chance at the next election,” said one cabinet minister close to Sunak.
When the Downing Street lockdown parties first came to light in December 2021, Johnson insisted in the Commons that “all guidance was followed completely” by staff working there. The probe by the privileges committee will determine whether the comments were a breach of parliamentary privilege.
The stakes are high for the former prime minister. If the committee finds him to be in contempt of parliament, he could be suspended from the Commons. If he is suspended for more than 10 days there could be a “recall petition”. If this is signed by more than 10 per cent of constituents in his Uxbridge constituency it would lead to a by-election.
A Metropolitan Police investigation into the Downing Street parties found that lockdown rules had been broken, which led to fines being issued to 83 people, including Johnson. A subsequent report into the partygate affair by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, heavily redacted some of its evidence and only published a handful of photographs. But the privileges committee could issue a more extensive document.
The government has committed to spending up to £220,000 for legal advice defending the former PM during the probe if necessary. Johnson’s allies have sought to undermine the privileges committee investigation, describing it as a “kangaroo court”.
Separately, Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen has had the whip removed after appearing to compare the delay in releasing safety data on Covid vaccines with the Holocaust.
Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire, tweeted on Wednesday: “As one consultant cardiologist said to me, this is the biggest crime against humanity since the Holocaust.”
Simon Hart, Tory chief whip, said Bridgen had “crossed a line” and caused great offence. “The vaccine is the best defence against Covid that we have,” he said.