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22 March 2023

Boris Johnson’s last stand

The former PM will hope to convince Tory MPs in a Privileges Committee hearing about partygate not to vote for any sanction against him.

By Rachel Wearmouth

The former prime minister Boris Johnson will take an oath on the bible at 2pm this afternoon (22 March) and saddle up for a four-hour grilling by the Privileges Committee on whether he deliberately misled parliament on the partygate scandal.

He accepts that the Commons “was misled by my statements” but will argue they “were made in good faith and on the basis of what I honestly knew and believed at the time”.

In a 52-page dossier outlining his defence yesterday, Johnson admitted “it is now clear” there were parties in Downing Street during Covid but “however they began, went past the point where they could be said to have been reasonably necessary for work purposes”.

More WhatsApp messages between him and No 10 officials are due to be published by the committee later today, but Johnson will likely maintain that he told the Commons there was no rule-breaking in “good faith”.

His “hear no evil, see no evil” defence stretches credulity, not least because there are images that show Johnson at an event which by anyone’s standard looks to be a party. But the Privileges Committee has to decide whether Johnson either deliberately or recklessly misled parliament and must piece together the timeline of his movements and statements. He will hope to convince the committee that his busy schedule while PM meant he could not know everything that was happening in his administration.

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Johnson also confirmed this morning that he will vote against Rishi Sunak’s Windsor framework, the Prime Minister’s agreement with the EU on a more flexible post-Brexit trade agreement in Northern Ireland. That means when the Commons division bell rings during the committee hearing, Johnson will leave for the House to lead a rebellion against the government. The DUP will also vote against the deal and many other Tory Eurosceptics may follow. It’s clear that Johnson, who could be suspended from parliament if the committee finds against him, will not go without a scrap and hopes to damage Sunak in the process.

Tory MPs will get a free vote on any sanction the committee imposes when its report is published after Easter – which means Johnson’s performance today will largely be aimed at them (Martin Fletcher writes how Tories MPs have Johnson’s political future in their hands here). Depending on how convincing he is – and there is little doubt he’ll be playing to the gallery – the vote to decide his fate could split the party at just the time Sunak is getting the government back on track.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

Read more:

Tory MPs have a golden opportunity to end Boris Johnson’s political career

Boris Johnson’s political future rests on this week’s hearing

The Brexiteers know they’re losing

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