British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces a test of Conservative party loyalty Thursday when MPs vote on whether he should be investigated for misleading them over the “partygate” scandal.
Johnson repeatedly denied in the House of Commons that he or his Downing Street staff had breached Covid-19 lockdown laws, after allegations of widespread rule-breaking emerged late last year.
But last week he became the first UK leader to be fined for breaking the law, as police confirmed they had issued dozens of penalty notices to his staff as part of an ongoing investigation.
Johnson’s single fine is related to an office gathering for his birthday in June 2020, when Britain was under a pandemic lockdown.
But penalties for other events could follow, and opposition parties are now demanding parliament’s cross-party “privileges committee” investigate Johnson.
It has the power to sanction lawmakers if they are found guilty of offences, including suspending them from the Commons.
However, the committee can only launch an investigation if a majority in the Commons votes for a referral.
The main opposition Labour party has urged Conservatives to back its call for the committee to assess whether Johnson’s denials amounted to “contempt of the House”.
It would need a sizeable rebellion among the 359 lawmakers from Johnson’s ruling Conservatives to pass, which is seen as unlikely.
But with an eye on local elections next month, Labour is pressing ahead with a bid to name and shame Tory MPs supporting Johnson, and hopes at least to force many of them to abstain.
Labour leader Keir Starmer Tuesday recounted to a hushed Commons the experience of one voter who, out of respect for the rules then in place, was unable to hold his dying wife’s hand in hospital.
He said the vote was “an important step towards restoring honesty and integrity into our politics”.
“I am urging all Conservative MPs to do the right thing – to respect the sacrifices their constituents made, and to vote in the national interest.”
Johnson himself will be far away, starting a two-day visit to India.
He has apologised over the scandal but remains adamant he never knowingly misled parliament, and has vowed to press on with issues including the war in Ukraine.
But one junior minister resigned last week following the police fine, while senior Tory backbencher Mark Harper told parliament on Tuesday that Johnson was “no longer… worthy” of being prime minister.
A drubbing for the Conservatives in the local elections on May 5 could significantly add to his woes, if more Tory MPs join the likes of Harper in demanding a leadership vote.
One national survey this week found around two-thirds of the public spoke negatively about Johnson, compared to just 16 percent positively, with the word “liar” the most commonly shared response.
Business minister Paul Scully conceded that the government “didn’t handle it particularly well at that point, communication-wise”, when media reports of the Downing Street parties first emerged.
“Nonetheless, the prime minister has gripped it, he has apologised, he’s accepted the fine, he has accepted the finding of the police and he does want to move on,” Scully told BBC television.