Boris Johnson faces the humiliation of an inquiry into whether he lied to parliament over the No 10 parties, after a revolt by Conservative MPs forced him to abandon a shambolic attempt to block it.
The prime minister has been plunged into a crisis by the debacle, which exposed his own MPs’ refusal to defend him – and is likely to trigger the release of damning photos of illegal gatherings.
In an extraordinary 24 hours, No 10 was forced to scrap a bid to delay the inquiry by the Commons’s Committee of Privileges into the long grass when its own MPs refused to go along with it.
A motion stating four denials of law-breaking made by Mr Johnson “appear to amount to misleading the House” passed without a vote, prompting the first such inquiry in modern times.
If the inquiry finds MPs were “knowingly” misled – after the prime minister was fined for breaking Covid rules, with further fines expected – he will be expected to resign, for breaching his own ministerial code.
Keir Starmer predicted the game is up. It has “never been more clear that Boris Johnson’s authority is shot and he is unable to lead,” he said, adding: “It’s clear he has lost the confidence of his MPs.”
In India, where he is on a trade trip, the prime minister laid bare his worries, losing his cool as he fended off questions about the parties – even as he insisted he has “absolutely nothing to hide”.
A new YouGov poll found that a staggering 78 per cent of voters believe Mr Johnson “lied” over the parties he long denied, while just 8 per cent do not.
There was only a scattering of Tory MPs on the Commons benches for the dramatic moment when the motion passed, after most were allowed to go home when defeat became inevitable.
Earlier, Mr Johnson was told “the gig’s up” by a senior Tory backbencher, as support for him among his MPs began to dwindle – while he was 5,000 miles away.
The former minister Steve Baker said he had been “tempted to forgive” his leader, but told MPs “the possibility of that, for me, has gone”.
Bob Neill, chair of the Justice Committee, said: “My constituents feel badly let down; I feel personally badly let down by what happened, and there must be consequences that follow from that.”
William Wragg, chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee – who has demanded a confidence vote to topple Mr Johnson – urged his fellow Tory MPs to act. “It is the Conservative parliamentary party’s responsibility. We must stop delegating and delaying our political judgement,” he pleaded.
And Anthony Mangnall, another Conservative MP, told his government: “I do forgive the prime minister for making those mistakes, but I do not forgive him for misleading the House, as I see it.”
In an unprecedented move, MPs were allowed to openly call the prime minister a “liar”, a description normally banned as unparliamentary but permitted due to the substance of the debate.
It is unclear when the “contempt” inquiry will start because the Metropolitan Police – which is still investigating five further “parties” Mr Johnson is believed to have attended – must complete its work first.
Perhaps crucially, No 10 conceded hundreds of potentially damning photos and documents may have to be released. Neither the Met nor the stalled Sue Gray inquiry was expected to disclose them.
After taking evidence in private, the committee will make recommendations to the Commons, which could be to suspend the prime minister if he is found to have misled MPs intentionally.
At that point, the pressure on Mr Johnson to quit would be intense. But if it decides any misleading was accidental, he is likely to escape with a slap on the wrist.
The committee has four Conservative members, one SNP MP and two Labour ones – but one of those, Chris Bryant, will not take part in the inquiry, because of his strong criticisms of Mr Johnson’s conduct.
The Met said it would not announce any further fines until after May’s local elections – but Downing Street suggested it stick to its pledge to reveal any further punishment of Mr Johnson.
Mr Bryant predicted the prime minister will quit before the inquiry starts because he was unable to “gather enough” of his MPs to protect him, saying: “It feels very end of regime. I can’t see he’d be there by the end of May.”
And Daisy Cooper MP, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, urged Tories to “sack Johnson now”, saying: “Conservative MPs have made themselves complicit in his law-breaking and his lies. There is no need to let this drag on for more weeks.”
Michael Ellis, the paymaster general, given the unenviable task of carrying out the U-turn, claimed the prime minister had “no concerns” about the inquiry – despite his failed attempts to obstruct it.
There was laughter as he said Mr Johnson is “mortified” by his breaching of Covid rules – hours after he claimed the public is disinterested in the controversy – and “wishes the clock could be turned back”.
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