Boris Johnson Admits Misleading U.K. Parliament Over Lockdown Parties
A day before he was to face a potentially make-or-break hearing, Boris Johnson conceded that he had misled the British Parliament about lockdown-breaking parties at 10 Downing Street while he was prime minister. But he insisted that he “did not intentionally or recklessly mislead” the House of Commons.
Mr. Johnson will testify on Wednesday before Parliament’s privileges committee, which is investigating whether he lied to lawmakers about violating Covid lockdown rules. A finding against him could cost him his seat in Parliament and extinguish hopes of resuscitating his political career.
In a defiant, 52-page written submission to the committee, Mr. Johnson said he had relied on the advice of trusted aides, none of whom warned him beforehand, or told him afterward, that the social gatherings violated social-distancing restrictions.
“When the statements were made, they were made in good faith and on the basis of what I honestly knew and believed at the time,” Mr. Johnson wrote, referring to statements he made in the House of Commons in December 2021, when he denied that Downing Street had violated any coronavirus guidelines.
The police later fined Mr. Johnson for attending his own birthday party in violation of the rules, making him the first prime minister to be found to have broken the law.
His appearance before the committee could be the last act of a messy drama that began in November 2021 when The Daily Mirror, a London tabloid, broke the story of three social gatherings, including a Christmas party, that had been held at Downing Street, where the offices and residence of the prime minister are, during lockdown.
There were no major revelations in Mr. Johnson’s defense, which, as the committee noted, contained no new documentary evidence. Instead, he shifted much of the responsibility to his staff and lashed out at the committee, which is chaired by a Labour Party lawmaker, for what he claimed was a “highly partisan” investigation.
Mr. Johnson also asserted that the committee, in its initial report on the matter, relied on claims made by his former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, who he said bore a grudge against him and wanted to topple him from office.
“It is no secret that Dominic Cummings bears an animus towards me, having publicly stated on multiple occasions that he wanted to do everything that he could to remove me ‘from power,’” Mr. Johnson wrote. “He cannot be treated as a credible witness.”
A sense of grievance flows through the document.
Mr. Johnson asks why he should have been more conscious of social-distancing guidelines, at a time when he was working 18-hour days to respond to the pandemic. He notes that a Downing Street photographer took pictures of some of the parties, which suggested that no one believed they were illicit. And he is still clearly rankled by being hit with a fine for what he describes as rather desultory birthday party.
“We had a sandwich lunch together and they wished me happy birthday,” Mr. Johnson recalled. “I was not told in advance that this would happen. No cake was eaten, and no one even sang ‘Happy Birthday.’”
It was not clear that Mr. Johnson’s defense would change the minds of critics, for whom the Downing Street parties became an emblem to many of a government that was unwilling to abide by the same restrictions it imposed on the country. It also crystallized longstanding questions about Mr. Johnson’s truthfulness.
Mr. Johnson has his allies, who have criticized both the privileges committee and a previous investigation led by a former top civil servant, Sue Gray. She has since left the government to become a senior adviser to the Labour leader, Keir Starmer.
In its report on the issue, the committee said that its members left “their party interests at the door of the committee room.”
The privileges committee reflects the party balance in the broader House of Commons, with four members from the Conservative Party, two from Labour and one from the Scottish National Party. By tradition, it is chaired by a lawmaker from the main opposition party, in this case Harriet Harman.
Although Mr. Johnson is out of power, he remains popular with the rank-and-file of the Conservative Party. He briefly considered challenging Rishi Sunak, the current prime minister, for party leader after the resignation of Liz Truss in October.
Mr. Sunak has taken a hands-off approach to Mr. Johnson’s case, saying he would not pressure Conservative lawmakers to vote against sanctions for his predecessor if the privileges committee found that Mr. Johnson lied to the House of Commons.
Mr. Johnson’s fate may hang on whether the violations of coronavirus restrictions should have been obvious to him, regardless of what his aides told him. In his submission, he argued that the committee had overreached by claiming that Mr. Johnson had “recklessly misled” Parliament — a standard that he said was “novel” and could not be used to determine his actions constituted contempt.
Mr. Johnson told lawmakers he had been “repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken.” In response to a follow-up question, he said, “whatever happened, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.”
That was belied in early 2022 by the steady drip of disclosures about parties: A bring-your-own-booze cocktail party in May 2020 and raucous get-togethers the night before the funeral of Prince Philip in April 2021, during which a swing set used by one of Mr. Johnson’s children was broken. Downing Street issue an apology to Queen Elizabeth II for those.
In her initial report on the scandal, Ms. Gray faulted Mr. Johnson for “failures of leadership and judgment” in allowing a drinking culture to take root in Downing Street. Four months later, she issued a fuller report that included a photo of Mr. Johnson raising a glass at his birthday party.
All told, Ms. Gray said that 83 people violated social-distancing rules at the parties, which she said included heavy drinking, unruly behavior and property damage. In April 2022, the Metropolitan Police issued a 50 pound ($61) fine to Mr. Johnson; his wife, Carrie Johnson; and Mr. Sunak, who was then chancellor of the Exchequer, for attending the birthday party.
That brought the scandal to another climax as several lawmakers called for Mr. Johnson to step down and lawmakers decided to initiate yet another investigate — this time on the issue of whether he lied to Parliament.
For all the headlines it generated, the scandal was not the issue that brought down Mr. Johnson. He was ultimately forced out in July 2022 over his handling of allegations that a Conservative lawmaker had drunkenly groped two men.