Johnson set to avoid by-election over ‘partygate’ scandal

Boris Johnson is expected to avoid a parliamentary by-election in his constituency even if a House of Commons committee concludes he deliberately misled MPs about the “partygate” scandal, according to people briefed on the probe.

Conservative MPs on the Commons privileges committee that is investigating the former prime minister’s conduct are reluctant to deploy the “nuclear option” of recommending sanctions that could result in a by-election, said these people.

Johnson is facing one of the biggest challenges of his rollercoaster political career as he prepares to answer questions on Wednesday from committee members about whether he “intentionally or recklessly” misled parliament about Downing Street parties held during coronavirus restrictions.

On Tuesday, Johnson acknowledged he inadvertently misled the Commons about the gatherings but hit out at the claims he did so deliberately.

In a 52-page written submission to the privileges committee, Johnson accepted he had made erroneous statements to parliament by saying Covid rules and guidance had been followed at all times but blamed advice from officials suggesting the events were permitted.

Referring to the committee’s probe, he added “it is clear from that investigation that there is no evidence at all that supports an allegation that I intentionally or recklessly misled the House”.

However, the committee said in an interim report this month that he may have misled parliament about the Downing Street parties after concluding evidence suggested that breaches of Covid rules would have been obvious to the then prime minister.

If the cross party committee concludes Johnson committed contempt by deliberately misleading parliament, members would be expected to consider recommending potential sanctions, including a formal apology or suspension from the Commons. MPs would vote on the proposed sanctions.

A suspension of at least 10 days would enable voters in Johnson’s constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip to hold a “recall petition” to trigger a by-election.

The recall procedure was introduced in 2015 after the MPs’ expenses scandal, but one person familiar with the privileges committee’s deliberations said a suspension of more than 10 days had become a “nuclear option” which was only used sparingly.

“Anything over 10 days pushes you into recall and that changes the mindset of MPs — it has become the nuclear option frankly,” they added.

The committee will balance several “aggravating” and “mitigating” factors if and when they discuss Johnson’s punishment, said this person.

One aggravating factor is his seniority as a former prime minister, but his decision to correct the record in parliament after realising he had misled MPs — albeit belatedly — will serve as mitigation.

Although the committee is chaired by Harriet Harman, a former Labour minister, four of its seven members are Conservative MPs.

One senior Labour MP said she believed that Tory MPs would seek to avoid a situation where a former Conservative prime minister could be ousted from his constituency. “I’m certain the Tories will be pressurising [committee members] to do that,” she added.

The suspension of MPs for breaches of Commons rules can range from the one day given to Ian Blackford of the Scottish National party in 2018 for “causing a scene”, to the six months for former Labour minister Keith Vaz in 2019 for offering to buy cocaine for sex workers while posing as a washing machine salesman.

One Johnson ally suggested a suspension of less than 10 days would be a way for the privileges committee to exert its moral authority without going too far. “Less than 10 days would probably suit everyone, wouldn’t it,” they said.

Three recall petitions have been held so far and two were successful, leading to the ousting of Conservative MP Chris Davies in Brecon and Radnorshire and Labour’s Fiona Onasanya in Peterborough.

Johnson became the first UK prime minister found to have committed a criminal offence while in office after police last year fined him for an illegal birthday party held in Downing Street in June 2020 during a Covid lockdown.

But Johnson said in his written evidence the event for which he received the penalty was held mainly to discuss Covid.

“We had a sandwich lunch together and they wished me happy birthday . . . No cake was eaten, and no one even sang happy birthday.”

Johnson also said there was “not a single document that indicates that I received any warning or advice” that government gatherings broke Covid rules or guidance.

In an example of how he relied on information from officials before making statements to parliament, he said he had asked about a Downing Street event that happened in the run-up to Christmas in 2020.

Johnson said he received a WhatsApp message from an adviser saying: “I think you can say ‘I’ve been assured there was no party and no rules were broken’.”

He added the committee’s argument that it should have been obvious that Covid rules were being breached during government gatherings was “fundamentally flawed”.

“If someone had known or believed that the rules or guidance had been broken . . . you would expect that there would have been contemporaneous documents recording this,” said Johnson. “There is absolutely nothing.”

He accused the committee of going beyond its remit by referring not just to whether Downing Street staff had complied with Covid rules, but also by looking at whether stricter guidance had been followed.

The committee said Johnson’s evidence had been submitted late, included errors and contained “no new documentary evidence”.

But allies of the former prime minister said it contained evidence which the committee had received but not published.

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