The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Boris Johnson lays out his ‘Partygate’ defense ahead of Parliament grilling

Former British prime minister Boris Johnson leaves his home in London on Tuesday. (Kin Cheung/AP)
6 min

LONDON — With his artfully tousled blond mop of hair and his skills as an after-dinner speaker, Boris Johnson has always been an entertainer. On Wednesday he will go before the cameras again for an hours-long showdown that could ultimately decide his political future.

The former prime minister — ousted by his own Conservative Party as an untrustworthy leader — is now being hauled before the House of Commons Privileges Committee to defend himself against the charge that he misled Parliament when he denied coronavirus lockdown rules were broken at a string of boozy parties held at 10 Downing Street, the British version of the White House.

British politicians can say all sorts of rubbish to the BBC that wouldn’t count as a crime, but government ministers are not supposed to knowingly mislead — artfully prevaricate? recklessly lie to? — the members of Parliament.

How many lockdown parties did Boris Johnson and staff attend? Here’s a guide.

In his defense, Johnson will tell the committee that he was told by his staff that no rules were broken — and that when he realized those rules were broken he amended his remarks.

Or as the Mirror, the tabloid which broke the scandal that became known as “Partygate,” put it: “Slippery Boris Johnson will on Wednesday try to wriggle off the hook over bombshell Partygate claims which could torpedo his political career.”

And apologize, defend, wriggle, take umbrage, he likely will.

But Johnson is exposed in ways he never has been before. This hearing will be televised live; Johnson will be the lone witness; his testimony will be hours long; and three of the seven members, including the chair, of the inquiry are from the opposition Labour Party.

Even before the televised grilling, the majority of Brits said they thought Johnson had knowingly misled Parliament.

A judgment in the form of a report by the committee might not land until May, and Johnson could face sanctions or a recall election. But it is the court of public opinion that has him and his remaining allies in the Conservative Party worried.

The British public and his fellow Tories for a long time gave Johnson a lot of slack, in similar ways to how evangelicals and the Republican Party excused excused former U.S. president Donald Trump. They knew Johnson was a bit of an artful dodger — he wouldn’t say how many children he had, and an American business executive claimed a torrid affair while he was London mayor — but they stuck with him, either because he was a world-beating vote-getter or they didn’t much care about the scandals, or both.

He is now going to be in the hot seat — and this is a scandal that the general public can easily understand: Did you or did you not party at Downing Street during lockdown? And what about your staff, in parties that involved karaoke, suitcases of wine and drinking to the point of vomiting?

Parsing might not cut it.

After resigning as leader of the Conservative Party and prime minister, Johnson remains a member of Parliament. Though he has spent very little time in the House of Commons, he has pursued a lucrative side gig of paid speaking.

The Independent newspaper reported that Johnson has earned the equivalent of more than $6 million over the past year, almost all since he stepped down in September.

Johnson sold his autobiography, too — a “prime ministerial memoir like no other,” Arabella Pike, publishing director at William Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins UK, told the Guardian. The publishing company is a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

U.K. ‘Partygate’ report blames No. 10 for boozy lockdown parties

Johnson accepted that he misled lawmakers but said that his responses at the time were made in “good faith” and on the “basis of what I honestly knew and believed at the time.”

In a 52-page “defense dossier” published Tuesday, Johnson said that there was “no evidence at all that supports an allegation that I intentionally or recklessly misled the House” and that when he realized that his denials were not true, he corrected the record at the “earliest opportunity.”

“We should have found a way to make it clearer that these were work events, with the specific purpose of thanking and motivating colleagues for their tireless efforts in fighting Covid-19. Hindsight is a wonderful thing,” he wrote.

He also urged the committee not to treat Dominic Cummings, his former top aide, as a credible witness. This is the same Cummings who helped win Brexit for Johnson and who led his campaign for prime minister.

“It is no secret that Dominic Cummings bears an animus toward me, having publicly stated on multiple occasions that he wanted to do everything that he could to remove me ‘from power,’” Johnson wrote.

Cummings fired up his blog Tuesday and claimed that there was still a “vast trove of material” in the cabinet office that could damage Johnson. “Much remains unpublished,” he wrote.

In his submission, Johnson addressed his becoming the first sitting British prime minister found to have broken the law when he attended his own birthday party in June 2020 when gatherings were not permitted indoors. Rishi Sunak, the current British prime minister, was also fined for attending the event.

Johnson wrote that “to this day it remains unclear to me — and I believe the Prime Minister may feel the same — how precisely we committed an offence under the regulations.”

“We had a sandwich lunch together and they wished me happy birthday. I was not told in advance that this would happen. No cake was eaten, and no-one even sang happy birthday. The primary topic of conversation was the response to Covid-19,” he said.

Britons were shocked when they learned that ministers and staff hosted a string of parties at Downing Street during the height of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, when the rest of the country was told to follow strict lockdown rules — shuttering pubs and restaurants, and canceling a million gatherings. Relatives couldn’t visit loved ones in hospitals, and even funerals had limits on the number of attendees.