Boris Johnson’s political future is hanging in the balance as he awaits the verdict of the Privileges Committee, which has been tasked with deciding whether he lied to Parliament over the partygate scandal.
Yesterday (22 March), in a hearing which lasted more than three hours, the former Prime Minister was grilled by MPs over what he knew about parties held in Downing Street - and on what he told the House of Commons when news of gatherings began to emerge. Johnson insisted in his evidence that he “hand on heart” did not lie to Parliament, arguing that he told MPs “no rules had been broken” at Number 10 because he genuinely believed that to be the case.
He argued that all events he attended were “essential” for work purposes - even though the Privileges Committee pointed to alcohol bottles being present. “Anyone who claims there was partying in lockdown simply does not know what they are talking about,” he emphatically stated.
The ex-Prime Minister was also questioned over why there are pictures of him in rooms where people are not adhering to social distancing rules. He admitted that the guidance “was not rigidly followed” in Number 10, but said this was down to the building being a “cramped, narrow, 18th century townhouse”, where people “had no choice but to meet day in, day out, seven days a week, in an unrelenting battle against Covid.”
It is now up to the Privileges Committee to decide whether it believes Johnson’s defence claims - but how long will this take, and what process will it follow? Here’s what we know so far about what could happen to Johnson, and how quickly his fate will be decided.
What happens next in the partygate probe?
The Privileges Committee now has to consider everything it has learnt throughout the course of its investigation. This will include evidence from whistleblowers and aides, information gathered from documents, and, of course, what Johnson said in his hearing.
During this hearing, Johnson called on the committee to publish all the evidence it had gathered “so that Parliament and public can judge for themselves”.
He said: “Despite my repeated requests, the committee has refused to do this. As investigator, prosecutor, judge, and jury it has elected only to publish the evidence which it considers incriminating and not the evidence which I rely on and which answers the charges. That is manifestly unfair.”
Chairwoman Harriet Harman argued they could not do this without the permission of all those who they spoke to, but told Johnson that if he had specific sections he would like published - he could look to gain the consent of the relevant people, meaning these extracts could be published sooner. Johnson agreed to this.
When will we know the outcome?
After all relevant evidence has been published, and a verdict has been decided on, an announcement will be made. But no specific date for this has been given by the Privileges Committee, with a spokesperson remarking it will simply be “as soon as is practicably possible.”
Given that the House of Commons is in recess between 30 March and 17 April, and local elections take place soon after, the findings are not expected any earlier than April or May. But even then, the inquiry could drag on into the summer.
The Guardian has also reported that Johnson will be given two weeks’ notice of the committee’s final report’s findings before they are published, meaning he will have the opportunity to respond pre-publication.
What could happen to Johnson?
Johnson could face a variety of outcomes, ranging from no action, to a written apology, to a docking of salary. But the most serious action - and the most talked about - has been the prospect the former Prime Minister could face a suspension from Parliament.
If he is suspended for 10 or more sitting days, or 14 calendar days, this could trigger a recall petition - which means Johnson could lose his seat as an MP. He would then be able to campaign again for his seat in a local by-election, but some have questioned whether his career would be able to bounce back from something like this.