British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday denied misleading Parliament about lockdown-breaching parties as senior government ministers said he would have to resign if he was proven to have lied.
Former Johnson aide Dominic Cummings has said he is willing to swear under oath that the prime minister was warned in advance that a May 2020 garden party for Downing Street staff would break coronavirus restrictions.
Johnson denies he was warned. He told Parliament last week that he had attended the party, but considered it a work gathering that fell within the rules.
“Nobody told me that what we were doing was … against the rules,” Johnson told broadcasters on Tuesday. “When I went out into that garden I thought that I was attending a work event.”
The garden party is one of a string of alleged rule-flouting government parties being investigated by senior civil servant Sue Gray.
Gray is due to report by the end of the month on claims government staff held late-night soirees, “bring your own booze” parties and “wine time Fridays” while Britain was under coronavirus restrictions in 2020 and 2021. The allegations have spawned public anger, incredulity and mockery, and prompted some in the governing Conservative Party to call for Johnson’s resignation.
Treasury chief Rishi Sunak — often cited as a potential successor to Johnson as prime minister — said he believed Johnson’s explanation. But he said that “the Ministerial Code is clear” about the consequences of misleading Parliament. Ministers who do that are expected to resign.
Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab agreed that deliberately lying to Parliament was “normally … a resigning matter.” But he dismissed Cummings’ claim Johnson was warned about the party as “nonsense.”
Cummings, an architect of the victorious 2016 referendum campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, left Downing Street in late 2020 and has become a vociferous critic of the prime minister he helped put in office.
Johnson’s spokesman, Max Blain, said “the ministerial code is very clear on this point when it comes to knowingly misleading the House and the prime minister abides by that, and we fully support it.”
Johnson has urged his opponents to wait for Gray’s verdict, though experts say there is a good chance it will neither exonerate him nor conclude he broke the law.
Meanwhile, Conservatives are watching nervously as the “partygate” revelations hit their popularity, with recent opinion polls giving the main opposition Labour Party a double-digit lead.
Under Conservative rules, a no-confidence vote in the leader can be triggered if 54 party lawmakers write letters demanding it. It’s unclear how many have already been submitted, and so far only a handful of Conservative members of Parliament have openly called for Johnson to quit.