UK lawmakers set to judge ex-PM Johnson over 'Partygate'

AFP , Monday 19 Jun 2023

British MPs will cast their judgment on Monday on a damning report that found ex-prime minister Boris Johnson lied to parliament about lockdown-breaking parties.

uk
FILE - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to attend the weekly Prime Minister s Questions at the Houses of Parliament, in London, on May 25, 2022. AP

 

A House of Commons debate about the report is being held on Johnson's 59th birthday -- likely leading to the removal of his pass to access parliament -- as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak struggles to move the crisis-hit country on from his predecessor's many scandals.

Johnson and his dwindling supporters have portrayed the report by the Commons privileges committee as a "witch hunt", and he resigned as a member of parliament just before its publication.

But Sunak, who has promised to restore integrity to government, said its bipartisan members had "done their work thoroughly".

However, Sunak's office refused to say whether he would attend the debate -- and he declined to be drawn on how MPs should decide if the report is put to a vote.

"This is a matter for the House rather than the government. That's an important distinction and that is why I wouldn't want to influence anyone in advance of that vote," he told ITV.

Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer, however, tried to keep pressure on Sunak to avoid taking sides between the report's backers and Johnson's vocal supporters in the Conservative party at large.

"He should show leadership. Come along! Get in the (voting) lobby and show us where he stands on this," he said on ITV, accusing Johnson of "miserable misbehaviour".

In a 106-page report last week, the privileges committee found Johnson guilty of "repeated contempts (of parliament) and... seeking to undermine the parliamentary process".

There was "no precedent for a prime minister having been found to have deliberately misled the House", it added.

Even as Sunak looks to draw a line under the "Partygate" scandal, another video emerged on Sunday of Tory party officials partying in December 2020 during one lockdown.

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove apologised for the Covid rule breach, at a time when the public was banned from socialising or meeting loved ones, even if they lay dying in hospitals or care homes.

He told the BBC the footage was "terrible" and "indefensible".

Covid victims' support groups were outraged at the reminder of the blithe disregard for the rules that was also seen in Johnson's 10 Downing Street.

 'Undimmed ebullience' 

London's Metropolitan Police force confirmed that it was looking into the footage from a 2020 Christmas gathering at Conservative headquarters.

Two of those present at the party were recognised in Johnson's controversial resignation honours list, and faced calls to withdraw their names.

By pre-emptively resigning, Johnson thwarted the committee's recommendation to suspend him as an MP for 90 days -- which could have led to him facing a humiliating re-election battle.

Instead, the committee could only recommend that his parliamentary pass be withdrawn, denying him one privilege normally offered to ex-members.

But it remains to be seen whether the debate ends in a formal vote later on Monday, or is simply nodded through by the Commons.

Johnson has urged his supporters not to bring it to a vote, arguing the pass sanction is meaningless.

His critics, however, note that any vote risks exposing how few supporters he has left among Tory MPs.

One of those supporters, former minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, predicted an eventual comeback.

"Perhaps, after the next election, Boris Johnson will return to the fray with a new electoral mandate," he wrote in the right-wing Daily Telegraph on Saturday, praising his "undimmed ebullience".

The under-fire Sunak is now facing four potential by-elections -- three linked to fallout from Johnson's honours list.

These will give voters an opportunity to voice discontent over his government's failure to tame inflation and the cost-of-living crisis.

Sunak deflected calls for a new government fund to give homeowners some respite as the cost of home loans rockets.

"We've got a clear plan to do that (halve inflation). It is delivering. We need to stick to the plan," he said.

Short link: