London: Britain’s former prime minister Boris Johnson should be denied automatic access to parliament for deliberately misleading lawmakers over rule-breaking COVID lockdown parties, a committee said on Thursday in a damning report.
Johnson reacted by calling the findings “rubbish”.
The privileges committee - the main disciplinary body for lawmakers - said Johnson had misled parliament on several occasions about Downing Street parties in a manner unprecedented for a prime minister.
The committee also accused Johnson of being “complicit in a campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation” towards them.
Its conclusions were a new low for one of Britain’s best-known and divisive politicians who in 2019 led the governing Conservatives to a landslide election victory but whose tenure was cut short by scandal.
Johnson shot back, repeating his innocence and condemning the report as “rubbish”, “a lie” and “a charade”, and accusing committee members of waging a vendetta against him.
The stand-off will do little to heal the deep divisions in the Conservatives and can only pile pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, whose push to try to boost Britain’s flagging economy is being overshadowed by the ongoing Johnson drama.
The more than 100-page report details six events held at Downing Street, the prime minister’s offices and residence.
“We conclude that in deliberately misleading the House Mr Johnson committed a serious contempt,” the committee said: “The contempt was all the more serious because it was committed by the prime minister, the most senior member of the government. There is no precedent for a prime minister having been found to have deliberately misled the House (of Commons, lower house of parliament).” It recommended that he should not be entitled to a former member’s pass, which enables most former prime ministers and former lawmakers to gain automatic access to parliament.
Parliament will consider the committee’s recommendation on Monday.
The committee is made up of four lawmaker’s from Johnson’s Conservative Party plus three from opposition parties.
It rejected his defence that the gatherings were within the rules and that his advisers had supported his belief that was the case.
Instead, it said, Johnson was “deliberately disingenuous when he tried to reinterpret his statements to the House to avoid their plain meaning and reframe the clear impression that he intended to give”.
It said that were Johnson still a member of parliament, it would have recommended a suspension from the House of Commons for 90 days.
Johnson resigned from parliament last week after seeing an advance copy of the report, calling the inquiry a “witch hunt”, a criticism he double-downed on after its publication.
“I believed, correctly, that these events were reasonably necessary for work purposes. We were managing a pandemic,” he said in a statement.
He said the report marked a “dreadful day” for members of parliament (MP) and for democracy. “This decision means that no MP is free from vendetta, or expulsion on trumped up charges by a tiny minority who want to see him or her gone from the Commons,” he said. .
He accused the committee of using mystical powers to see things that he had not seen at Downing Street, when, he said, he was duty bound to thank staff who were departing or for their work on COVID-19. The committee did not accept his defence.
The Labour Party said the report was “damning”.
“While Rishi Sunak is distracted with the ongoing Tory soap opera people are crying out for leadership on the issues that matter to them,” said Thangam Debbonaire, a member of Labour’s top team.
But even those Conservative lawmakers who are not particularly loyal to Johnson questioned the severity of the committee’s findings.
“I’m not his biggest fan but it seems to me it’s excessive,” said one on condition of anonymity.
Johnson has apologised for his conduct but repeatedly denied deliberately misleading parliament, saying he took advice from his aides that his office were following the rules.
But so-called Partygate spelt the beginning of the end for his tenure as prime minister. A rebellion in his governing Conservative Party last year, when ministers resigned en masse, forced him in July to say he would step down. He left office in September.
He resigned from parliament last week, ending his time as a so-called backbench lawmaker who continued to wield significant influence within the Conservatives that at times undermined Sunak’s authority.
While Sunak was once a protege of Johnson, the two have become rivals. They have also rowed this week over the former prime minister’s resignation honours list.