Rishi Sunak fails to appear as MPs back report that found Boris Johnson misled Commons over Partygate

The Privileges Committee accused Johnson of ‘disingenuous’ explanations for lockdown parties but the ex-PM called its work ‘deranged’

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now

Rishi Sunak was accused of cowardice for failing to appear for the MP debate on the report which found Boris Johnson deliberately misled the Commons over the Partygate row.

The Privileges Committee - which investigated the former Prime Minister - recommended last week he should be suspended from Parliament for 90 days had he not already resigned. MPs overwhelmingly backed the report, which will see the removal of Johnson’s Parliamentary access pass. The former PM suffered a humiliating defeat in the Commons vote by 354 votes, with only seven MPs voting against the Privileges Committee’s conclusions.

Shadow Commons Leader Thangam Debbonaire said his absence shows Sunak is "too weak" to stand up to Johnson. She told the Commons: "It is painfully clear he [Sunak] is not strong enough to turn the page on his predecessor. When stories or scandals like this one cut through with the public, it offers a Prime Minister the chance to press the reset button, to show leadership, get to grips with an issue, tackle it head on, but this Prime Minister is simply too weak to do so.

"Despite promising integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level, he has shown he is too weak to stand up to Boris Johnson and his sycophants." The Labour frontbencher added that it was on Sunak to set an example and come to the House of Commons for the vote.

Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt responded: "“The Prime Minister is on record defending the work of the Privileges Committee. He has called out those that have overstepped the mark from genuine, legitimate questions around process and so forth to attacking and intimidating members of the Committee and bringing the House into disrepute.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said he had afternoon meetings on Monday, including hosting his Swedish counterpart, Ulf Kristersson, before attending a dinner in the evening.

MPs found Boris Johnson deliberately misled Parliament over his statements on PartygateMPs found Boris Johnson deliberately misled Parliament over his statements on Partygate
MPs found Boris Johnson deliberately misled Parliament over his statements on Partygate

What was the committee investigating?

A year ago, the seven-MP committee - which had a Conservative majority - began to examine claims Johnson lied to the House of Commons about his knowledge of gatherings at Downing Street that breached lockdown rules in place at the time.

He was subsequently investigated by Scotland Yard and fined for attending his own 56th birthday party. His wife Carrie Johnson and the then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak were also fined.

Giving evidence to the committee in March this year, Johnson strongly denied intentionally misleading Parliament - insisting he genuinely believed no rules had been broken at Number 10.

A demonstrator poses for a photograph holding a placard calling for the resignation of Boris Johnson  (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)A demonstrator poses for a photograph holding a placard calling for the resignation of Boris Johnson  (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)
A demonstrator poses for a photograph holding a placard calling for the resignation of Boris Johnson (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

What did it find?

The committee’s report - released on Thursday (15 June) - concluded Johnson did mislead Parliament about the gatherings, calling his denials and explanations “disingenuous”. It found that the ex-PM:

  • Claimed Covid rules and guidance were followed at all times in Number 10 on four separate occasions
  • Failed to tell the House “about his own knowledge of the gatherings where the rules or guidance had been broken”
  • Said he relied on “repeated reassurances” that rules had not been broken
  • Insisted on waiting for Sue Gray’s report to be published before he could answer questions in the House, when he had “personal knowledge which he did not reveal”
  • Claimed that rules and guidance had been followed while he was present at gatherings in Number 10 when he “purported to correct the record” in May 2022

The committee also criticised Johnson for making a public statement about its report after seeing a preliminary copy. It said this in itself was “a very serious contempt” - because he knew the committee couldn’t respond publicly as its work wasn’t complete.

What did MPs say?

During the debate, former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May told the Commons she accepts the findings of the Privileges Committee’s report. “It is not easy to sit in judgment on friends and colleagues,” she said, adding “but friendship, working together, should not get in the way of doing what is right.

“I commend the members of the Privileges Committee for their painstaking work, and for their dignity in the face of slurs on their integrity."

May said all MPs are “under an obligation” to not repeat claims that mislead the House and also correct the record at the first opportunity. “Above all we are all responsible for our own actions... Beyond that this House has a responsibility to ensure standards are upheld by showing that we are willing to act against the interests of colleagues when the facts require it and in this case I believe they do.

“The decision of the House on this report is important. It is important to show the public that there is not one rule for them and another for us." She continued: “If they see members of this House trying to save the careers of friends who have been clearly found by due process to have been guilty of wrongdoing, as happened in the case of Owen Paterson, their respect for us is eroded."

Labour veteran and Privileges Committee chairwoman Harriet Harman thanked “every member of the Privileges Committee” for their “outstanding dedication and commitment”, adding: “But particularly the Conservative members of the committee. They have also had to be extraordinarily resilient.

“They have had to withstand a campaign of threats, intimidation, and harassment designed to challenge the legitimacy of the inquiry, to drive them off the Committee and thereby frustrate the intention of the House that this inquiry should be carried out. Yet through all this, they have not given into the intimidation.”

SNP Commons leader Deidre Brock echoed her sentiment, telling the Commons: “We need to turn our gaze to all the members opposite who ignored his track record, indulged his behaviour, and the obvious failings of the man simply because (they) thought he could win them their seat.”

“At the very least they should show some remorse for that cynicism, accept the recommendations of this report and vote for those recommendations," she added. “And if they don’t, I hope their cowardly refusal will dog them for the rest of their political lives. If ever there was a moment for them to stand up and be counted, it is now.”

How has Johnson responded?

On Thursday, Johnson accused the Privileges Committee of delivering “what is intended to be the final knife-thrust in a protracted political assassination”. He repeated he believed he was innocent of any wrongdoing, and called the report’s findings “deranged”. You can read his statement in full here.

Over the weekend, he made his first appearance as a weekly columnist for the Daily Mail - joking that he would only talk about politics when “I absolutely have to”. His debut piece focused on weight loss.

But any new jobs taken up by former ministers in the two years after they leave government need to be declared. The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments said it heard from Johnson just half an hour before the Mail announced it’d hired him. The panel has written to the ex-PM, demanding an explanation.

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.