The Labor motion on Thursday passed without a vote after receiving no objections, after the last-minute Downing Street U-turn after the scale of discontent on the Tory benches was laid bare. The decision means MPs on the Privileges Committee will investigate whether Mr Johnson is in contempt of Parliament for misleading the Commons with his repeated denials of lockdown-busting parties in No 10.
It came on a day which also saw the Metropolitan Police come under fire after it announced it would not issue any further updates on partygate ends until after May’s local elections.
The investigation by MPs will only begin after Scotland Yard has completed its own inquiry into alleged coronavirus law breaches at the heart of Government.
Mr Johnson, who missed the motion debate and decision because he is on an official visit to India, has already been fined once by Metropolitan Police for attending his own birthday celebration in June 2020, with his officials braced for more fixed-penalty notices to land . He is thought to have been at six of the 12 possible rule-breaking events being considered by Operation Hillman officers.
Meanwhile, in a further blow to the Prime Minister, former minister Steve Baker, an influential mobilizer on the backbenches, told MPs the Prime Minister “should be long gone” – despite him offering support just 48 hours earlier.
Opening the debate yesterday, Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer said the Prime Minister had tried to “cover up his misdeeds” by taking advantage of the Commons convention not to call someone a liar.
The Labor leader said: “The Prime Minister has stood before this House and said things that are not true, safe in the knowledge that he will not be accused of lying because he can’t be.
“He has stood at that dispatch box and point blank denied rule-breaking took place, when it did.
“As he did so, he was hoping to gain extra protection from our good faith that no Prime Minister would deliberately mislead the House.”
The scale of Tory unease was set out by Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee chairman William Wragg, who confirmed he had submitted a letter of no confidence in Mr Johnson’s leadership.
“I cannot reconcile myself to the Prime Minister’s continued leadership of our country and the Conservative Party,” he told MPs.
In a scathing speech, Mr Wragg said: “There can be few colleagues on this side of the House I would contend who are truly enjoying being Members of Parliament at the moment.
“It is utterly depressing to be asked to defend the indefensible. Each time part of us withers.”
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Mr Baker, who was a prominent Brexiteer involved in ousting Theresa May, said: “The Prime Minister now should be long gone.
“Really, the Prime Minister should just know the gig’s up.”
SNP Commons leader Pete Wishart claimed the Conservatives will be “hammered” in the local elections due to partygate. He said: “I am not going to be reticent about elections. The police have just put out a statement to say there will be no more issuing of fines and no more comment until after the council elections.
“This is now definitely in the mix, the elections are a feature of all this because of that police statement.
“I have to say to my Conservative colleagues over there, you are going to get hammered, absolutely hammered. The public are outraged.”
Defending Mr Johnson, Cabinet Office minister Michael Ellis insisted the Prime Minister made his comments “in good faith”.
He said: “He has responded to the event for which he has received a fixed-penalty notice.
“He made it clear that he did not think at that time, that the event was in contravention of Covid rules, however he has apologized for his mistake, paid his fine and accepted the findings of the Metropolitan Police.
“There is a difference between a deliberate and an inadvertent situation and I think most people would accept that.”
Despite the earlier Met announcement, Downing Street indicated that it will still say whether Mr Johnson or the Cabinet Secretary are fined further over partygate before the local elections.
A No 10 spokesman said: “We’ve committed before to being transparent and to letting people know if that were the case. That hasn’t changed. But specifically the announcement made today – it’s clearly a matter for the Met Police, it’s their investigation and it’s an independent matter for them.”
Asked if No 10 making such a disclosure would render the police’s silence on the matter irrelevant, the spokesman said: “We’ve said given the public interest that we would make people aware if the Prime Minister or if the Cabinet Secretary received a fine.
“The Prime Minister himself said yesterday in Parliament that … if he were to receive another he would be transparent and would let people know. That hasn’t changed.”
Speaking in India during the debate, the Prime Minister claimed the current scrutiny surrounding the partygate scandal is “not very useful”.
He said: “What voters will want to see is the conclusion of the investigation and then I think the House of Commons can decide what to do.
“I will then come back as I’ve said and explain what happened, give a fuller account than I’ve been able to do so far, we will get Sue Gray’s final words on that matter and then I think people will be able to make a judgement.
“But until then, I have to say, I think a lot of this is not very useful.
“There’s not a lot more I can say and what I want to do is focus on the things that I think are a massive long-term benefit to this country.”
Responding to Mr Baker’s call for him to quit, the Prime Minister said: “I understand people’s feelings. I don’t think that is the right thing to do.”
Mr Johnson’s aides are braced for him to receive multiple purposes, having already been handed one fixed-penalty notice for the gathering on his 56th birthday. Insisting he has “absolutely nothing, frankly, to hide”, the Prime Minister appeared visibly rattled in broadcast interviews, even asking reporters “how many more” questions he had to face.