Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson has denied lying to the United Kingdom’s parliament during a televised deposition part of an inquiry into the so-called “Partygate” scandal.
After taking an oath on the Bible, Johnson told a parliamentary standards committee that everything he had told the legislators regarding the gatherings held in 10 Downing Street during the COVID-19 pandemic was done “in good faith and based on what I honestly believed at the time”.
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“Hand on heart … I did not lie to the House,” he said.
“People who say that we were partying in lockdown, simply do not know what they are talking about,” Johnson added, insisting that they should have been viewed as workplace meetings.
His temper flared in response to questioning from Sir Bernard Jenkin, the senior Tory parliamentarian, who suggested he had not sufficiently verified the claims before denying there had been any breach of conduct.
He accused the committee members of “complete nonsense” and reiterated his claim that the gatherings had been “absolutely essential for work.”
The ex-Conservative leader, who nearly died of COVID, has been accused of knowing that the gatherings had on multiple occasions breached the lockdown legislation he himself introduced.
At the time, he assured Parliament that the guidance was being followed.
“I apologise for inadvertently misleading the House,” he said. “But to say that I did it recklessly or deliberately is completely untrue.”
If found to have lied, Johnson could face suspension from Parliament. If the full House agrees to a suspension of more than 10 sitting days, that could trigger a special election for his northwest London seat, if enough voters demand one.
Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from London, said at times “tempers flared” as Johnson was “fighting for his political future.”
The campaign group COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK said his claim that he issued his “Partygate” denials “in good faith” was “sickening”.
Hull said that “it will be years before an independent inquiry releases its findings into what they perceive to have been government failures” during the pandemic.
For the bereaved families, therefore, “watching Boris Johnson undergo this sort of questioning is the closest they get to accountability.”
Amanda Henry, whose father died to COVID-19, told Al Jazeera they had “trusted the government to protect all of us, and especially the most vulnerable, and he didn’t do it.”
“I don’t think [Johnson] should have a career in government or be an MP after what he’s done,” Henry said. “It upsets me that he’s not being held accountable.”
While Johnson accepted that “perfect” social distancing was not always observed, he argued that Downing Street had put the appropriate mitigations in place where two-metre social distancing was possible.
“It was always the case that we understood that the confines of Number 10 were going to make it impossible the whole time to enforce a total social distancing, as it were with an electric force field around every individual,” he told the committee.
On Tuesday, he released a 52-page dossier detailing his belief that he was truthful when he repeatedly told Parliament that all regulations were being respected.
In hindsight, he recognised that he did “mislead” lawmakers based on assurances given by top aides that the rules were being followed.
“No one advised me after any of these events that they were against the rules or guidance, or, more importantly, that they had been allowed to go on in such a way as to breach the rules or guidance,” Johnson said.
However, hours before Wednesday’s televised hearing, the parliamentary committee published a larger 110-page bundle of evidence.
It included a Downing Street official stating that Johnson “often saw and joined” gatherings in the complex during lockdowns, and that “he had the opportunity to shut them down”.
“He could see what was happening and allowed the culture to continue,” the official added.
The evidence also showed Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, the UK’s most senior civil servant, denying he had ever assured Johnson that COVID rules were followed at all times.
Johnson was fined by police for one gathering, along with Sunak, his finance minister at the time. Dozens of other staff members also received fines.
The former leader apologised and corrected the parliamentary record last May after previously insisting that the gatherings were above board.