Former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson began testifying on Wednesday at a crucial hearing on whether he misled Parliament about lockdown parties.
Johnson denies deliberately lying, but if found to have done so, he could face suspension or even lose his seat in Parliament.
Johnson is being questioned by the House of Commons standards committee over his statements about rule-breaking parties in government buildings during the coronavirus pandemic.
He told the committee after taking an oath on a Bible that events that broke the government's rules were wrong and “I bitterly regret it,” but added: “hand on heart ... I did not lie to the House.”
Johnson acknowledges that his insistence that the rules were followed at all times turned out to be untrue. But he says he never “knowingly or recklessly” misled Parliament.
“You have found nothing to show that I was warned in advance that events in No. 10 (Downing St.) were illegal," he told the committee in an opening statement.
Expected to last several hours, the hearing is a moment of peril for a politician whose career has been a roller coaster of scandals and comebacks. If the House of Commons Committee of Privileges concludes Johnson lied deliberately, he could be suspended or even lose his seat in Parliament.
That would likely end hopes of one more comeback for the 58-year-old politician, who led the Conservative Party to a landslide victory in 2019 but was forced out by his own party in July 2022 after getting mired in scandals over money, ethics and judgment.
In an interim report this month, the committee — made up of Conservative and opposition lawmakers — said evidence strongly suggested that it would have been ”obvious” to Johnson that gatherings in his Downing Street offices in 2020 and 2021 broke COVID-19 lockdown rules.
Johnson acknowledged on Tuesday that his repeated reassurances to Parliament that the rules were followed at all times “did not turn out to be correct.” But he said he “did not intentionally or recklessly mislead” lawmakers.
In a dossier of written evidence, Johnson said it never occurred to him that the gatherings — which variously included cake, wine, cheese and a “secret Santa” festive gift exchange — broke the restrictions on socializing that his own government had imposed on the country.
He said he “honestly believed” the five events he attended, including a send-off for a staffer and his own surprise birthday party, were “lawful work gatherings.”
”No cake was eaten, and no one even sang ‘Happy Birthday,’” he said of the June 19, 2020, celebration.
Johnson said that he was assured by “trusted advisers” that neither the legally binding rules nor the government's coronavirus guidance had been broken.
However, several senior officials denied that they had advised Johnson that guidance had always been followed. Written evidence released by the committee on Wednesday shows that principal private secretary Martin Reynolds said that he had “questioned whether it was realistic to argue that all guidance had been followed at all times.”
Police eventually issued 126 fines over the late-night soirees, boozy parties and “wine time Fridays,” including one to Johnson, and the scandal helped hasten the end of premiership.
Revelations about the gatherings sparked anger among Britons who had followed rules imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, unable to visit friends and family or even say goodbye to dying relatives in hospitals.
Johnson said he was assured by “trusted advisers” that no rules had been broken — assurances that turned out to be wrong. He said he was later “genuinely shocked” by the rule-breaking uncovered by police and by senior civil servant Sue Gray, who led an investigation into “partygate.”
Johnson and his supporters have also questioned the impartiality of Gray, because she has now accepted a job as chief of staff to the leader of the opposition Labour Party.
If the committee finds Johnson in contempt, it could recommend punishments ranging from an oral apology to suspension from Parliament, though any punishment would have to be approved by the whole House of Commons.
A suspension of 10 days or more would allow his constituents in the suburban London seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip to petition for a special election to replace Johnson as a member of Parliament.