Facing a hearing that could curtail his political career, Britain’s former prime minister Boris Johnson denied lying to Parliament on Wednesday, but under sharp questions from lawmakers struggled to justify some of the misleading statements he made about lockdown-busting parties held in Downing Street.
The session, before the powerful privileges committee in the House of Commons, is the culmination of months of recrimination over the so-called “partygate” scandal, one of several that contributed to Mr. Johnson’s downfall under pressure as prime minister last year.
During a hearing that stretched to around three hours, Mr. Johnson was initially defiant. He insisted that while he may have misled lawmakers by telling them that no illegal gatherings took place, he had grounds to believe what he said was true at the time.
But he was soon facing pointed questions from committee members, providing some answers that cast doubt on his claims and prompting one lawmaker to describe Mr. Johnson’s assurances as “flimsy.”
Toward the end of the session, the exchanges became testy. When asked if he accepted that the committee would be fair, Mr. Johnson said that it would have been “utterly insane” of him to have deliberately lied to Parliament. He said for the committee to conclude that he did so would not only be unfair but also wrong.
Mr. Johnson’s appearance was a vivid reminder of the drama that engulfed and ultimately helped wreck his leadership during a period of extraordinary turmoil in British politics.
As the crisis around him ballooned, Mr. Johnson was ousted by his own lawmakers and replaced by Liz Truss, who lasted only six weeks — the shortest reign by any prime minister in British history — before resigning last fall. She was succeeded by Rishi Sunak, the current prime minister.
As the committee interrogated Mr. Johnson, Mr. Sunak fulfilled a promise to publish details of his tax declaration showing that he paid more than 1 million pounds in British income tax during the three previous financial years. Much of that related to capital gains generated by a single U.S. based investment fund, according to a letter from his accountant. He paid £432,000 in taxes in 2021-22, the letter showed.
The immediate media focus on Wednesday was elsewhere, as Mr. Johnson laid out his defense at the televised event after swearing an oath on the Bible.
Lying to Parliament is a significant transgression and carries the possibility of suspension or worse. If the committee proposes a suspension of 10 days or more — and lawmakers approved it — there could be a vote in Mr. Johnson’s constituency, Uxbridge, on whether to keep him as a representative. Losing such a vote, and his seat in Parliament, would end Mr. Johnson’s prospects of a political comeback any time soon.
Within his Conservative Party, Mr. Johnson has a loyal following of supporters who see him as a vote-winner who could deliver another election victory. Last fall, after Ms. Truss’s resignation, Mr. Johnson wavered over whether to try to win his old job back before deciding not to run.
He acknowledged to the committee on Wednesday that he had made misleading statements in Parliament when he assured it that there was no breach of lockdown rules. He said he took full responsibility for the Downing Street gatherings. “That was wrong, I bitterly regret it,” he said.
But, despite being challenged over events he attended, Mr. Johnson denied he had knowingly misled lawmakers.
“I am here to say to you, hand on heart, that I did not lie to the House,” he said. “When those statements were made, they were made in good faith on the basis of what I honestly knew and believed at the time.”
Earlier, Mr. Johnson watched as video clips were played of several statements to Parliament in 2021 and 2022 that proved to be incorrect. Harriet Harman, the senior lawmaker who chaired the hearing, said the committee’s job was to ascertain how he could have given these assurances in good faith when he was himself present at some gatherings where rules were broken.
When challenged about an event at which he was photographed proposing a farewell toast to a departing staff member, Mr. Johnson described the gathering as necessary for work reasons. He referred to the relatively cramped interior of Downing Street, claiming it made social distancing difficult.
“People who say that we were partying in lockdown simply do not know what they are talking about,” he added.
However, he struggled to justify why the event was permitted when going-away parties were not being held in other workplaces. He gave a vague reply when asked whether he would have told other employers that they could host similar events. Such decisions on interpreting official guidance, he said, would be up to the organizations concerned.
Under questioning, Mr. Johnson said that he could not recall being given specific reassurances by any of his most senior civil servants that lockdown rules and guidance had been observed at all times in Downing Street. Instead, Mr. Johnson cited advice from two political aides.
That prompted Ms. Harman to ask him whether Mr. Johnson had relied on “flimsy” reassurances. Another lawmaker suggested the former prime minister did not take proper advice before telling Parliament that no lockdown rules were broken.
A judgment of Mr. Johnson’s intent could be critical, because the committee has said it is investigating whether his statements to Parliament were “inadvertent, reckless or intentional.” This may include examining “how quickly and comprehensively any misleading statement to the House was corrected.”
Sparked by articles in The Daily Mirror and subsequently in other British newspapers, the “partygate” scandal grew with a steady stream of disclosures. One involved a cocktail party in May 2020, and another featured a party the night before the funeral of Prince Philip in April 2021. Downing Street issued an apology to Queen Elizabeth II for that episode.
A report into the events compiled by a former senior civil servant, Sue Gray, included a photo of Mr. Johnson raising a glass at one of the gatherings.
Mr. Johnson’s allies have criticized the committee, and questioned the neutrality of Ms. Harman because of comments she had previously made about him. They have also attacked the investigation by Ms. Gray, who has since left the civil service after being offered a job as a senior adviser to Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party.
Mr. Sunak has promised that Conservative lawmakers will not be instructed how to vote if the committee recommends a suspension for the former prime minister.
In recent weeks, Mr. Sunak has strengthened his leadership position, agreeing with the European Union on a new deal on post-Brexit trade rules and smoothing relations with President Emmanuel Macron of France. Mr. Johnson’s hearing is likely to remind viewers in Britain of some of the reasons he became highly unpopular.
Voters do not appear nostalgic about Mr. Johnson’s time in office, according to one recent opinion poll, which found he had significantly worse ratings, both for competence and trustworthiness, than either Mr. Starmer or Mr. Sunak.
But some analysts have said the hearing would be unhelpful to the Conservatives, given that the party’s opinion poll ratings may be edging up somewhat, though they still trail well behind the Labour Party.