Boris Johnson told parliament several times last year that no Covid-19 rules were broken in Whitehall, despite multiple media reports about Downing Street parties held during coronavirus lockdowns.
The Metropolitan Police’s move last week to fine the prime minister for attending a surprise birthday party in Number 10 in June 2020 confirmed that coronavirus restrictions were breached.
Johnson apologised to the House of Commons on Tuesday for breaking Covid rules by attending the social gathering, but denied deliberately misleading parliament over the partygate scandal. It was the third time he has formally apologised to MPs over the affair.
Why does misleading parliament matter?
Misleading the House of Commons is a serious matter for ministers, and sometimes constitutes a resignation issue.
The ministerial code, which governs the conduct of members of the government, states it is of “paramount importance” that “accurate and truthful information” is given to parliament.
It goes on to say that “ministers who knowingly mislead parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the prime minister”. It also says that ministers who mislead MPs inadvertently should remedy this “at the earliest opportunity”.
Sometimes ministers quit even when they have not deliberately misled parliament. In 2018 Amber Rudd, the then home secretary, resigned after she “inadvertently misled” MPs about immigration policy.
What do the opposition say about Johnson?
The opposition at Westminster have called on Johnson to resign over partygate, arguing that he knowingly misled parliament when he told MPs on December 8 last year that “the [Covid] rules were followed at all times”.
Labour and other parties across the Commons floor argue this represents a clear breach of the ministerial code because they believe Johnson knew the coronavirus restrictions had been broken.
They have cited evidence in newspaper reports about Downing Street and Whitehall social gatherings in 2020 and 2021 that flouted the rules that applied at the time.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labour party leader, described Johnson’s behaviour as a “national disgrace”.
Alice Lilly, senior researcher at the Institute for Government, a think-tank, said the most “concrete route” for MPs to hold a minister to account for misleading the Commons is a parliamentary motion for debate about whether the statement was knowingly or accidentally incorrect.
But she added “the outcome of any vote on whether a minister has committed a contempt by making a false statement is likely to depend on the size of the government’s majority. So that is also a limited mechanism.”
Opposition parties have secured a parliamentary vote on Thursday on the case for the Commons privileges committee to investigate Johnson’s conduct, including whether he has deliberately misled parliament.
But Johnson is likely to win the vote, and avoid being subjected to an inquiry by the committee, because the Tories have a big Commons majority.
What do the prime minister and his allies say?
Johnson’s supporters have for weeks focused their defence of the prime minister on two arguments: first, that he did not knowingly mislead parliament; and second, that his partygate fine is a relatively minor offence.
In his first Commons statement since being fined, Johnson on Tuesday apologised “unreservedly” for attending the birthday party in June 2020.
Veteran Tory MP Peter Bone asked Johnson whether he knowingly lied to parliament. “No,” said the prime minister.
But Johnson repeatedly apologised to MPs and the public for “the hurt and the anger” caused by the affair, and said voters expected better of their leaders.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit opportunities and government efficiency minister, said last week that the “prime minister spoke to parliament in good faith”, adding: “the ministerial code is not a legislative part of our constitution, it is a set of guidelines produced by the prime minister”.
Brandon Lewis, Northern Ireland secretary, on Tuesday likened Johnson’s fine for attending the birthday party in June 2020 to a speeding ticket. “We’ve seen reports of ministers who have had, both the Labour party and the Conservative party over the years, . . . speeding fines and things like that,” he told the BBC.
Johnson’s allies have also sought to put his fine in the context of his signature domestic and foreign policies, including the UK’s early use of Covid-19 vaccines and Britain’s support for Ukraine and its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, after the invasion by Russia.
Nadine Dorries, culture secretary, tweeted at the weekend: “We were first country to administer a vaccine, first to offer lethal aid to Ukraine. Zelensky hails Boris Johnson as his chief ally. Yet the consensus of our commentators and some politicians is that uneaten cake is the chief issue before the nation.”
Will the PM be forced to resign?
Johnson finds himself in the peculiar situation of being the arbiter of the ministerial code that governs his conduct.
The prime minister could opt to refer himself to Lord Christopher Geidt, the independent adviser on ministerial standards, in relation to partygate but he has so far shown no inclination to do so.
Johnson’s political future lies in the hands of Conservative MPs: they have the power to remove him through a vote of no confidence, although most are currently showing little or no appetite to make this move.
But senior Tories fear Johnson could face more fines over partygate and he is braced for criticism in a report about social gatherings in Downing Street and Whitehall by senior civil servant Sue Gray.
If the Conservatives sustain major losses in the May 5 local elections, the party’s MPs might finally be persuaded to oust him.