Boris Johnson faces high-stakes ‘partygate’ barbecue

LONDON (AP) – Boris Johnson is back where he likes to be: the center of attention. But he’s not so happy about the reason.

The former British prime minister faces a grilling from a panel of lawmakers on Wednesday over whether he misled Parliament about rule-breaking parties in government buildings during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement, an optimistic Johnson said “the evidence proves conclusively that I have not knowingly or recklessly misled Parliament”.

“The committee hasn’t produced a shred of evidence to prove that I have,” he said.

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 Privilege Committee concludes that Johnson has lied deliberately, he could be suspended or even lose his seat in Parliament.

That would likely end hopes of another comeback for the 58-year-old politician, who led the Conservative Party to a landslide victory in 2019 but was forced out of his own party in July 2022 after becoming mired in scandals over money, ethics and judgment.

In an interim report this month, the committee – made up of Conservative and opposition lawmakers – said the evidence strongly suggested it would have been “obvious” to Johnson that meetings at his Downing Street offices in 2020 and 2021 would break the COVID-19 lockdown rules.

Johnson acknowledged on Tuesday that his repeated assurances to Parliament that the rules were being followed at all times “have not proved 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” holiday gift exchange — broke the restrictions on socializing that the his own government had imposed on the country.

She said she “honestly believed” the five events she attended, including a greeting for a staffer and her surprise birthday party, were “legal business meetings”.

“No cake was eaten and no one even sang ‘Happy Birthday,'” she said of the June 19, 2020 celebration.

Police eventually issued 126 fines for late nights, boozy parties and ‘wine hour Fridays’, including one to Johnson, and the scandal helped hasten the demise of the premiership.

The revelations about the gatherings have sparked anger among Britons who had followed the 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 had been assured by “trusted advisers” that no rules had been broken – assurances that turned out to be wrong. He later said he was “genuinely shocked” by the rule violation uncovered by police and senior official Sue Gray, who led a “partygate” investigation.

Johnson and his supporters also questioned Gray’s impartiality, because he has now taken a job as chief of staff to the leader of the opposition Labor 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 entire House of Commons.

A suspension of 10 days or more would allow his constituents in the London suburban seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip to petition for a special election to replace Johnson as a Member of Parliament.

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