LONDON – Britain’s House of Commons on Monday resoundingly endorsed a report that found Boris Johnson lied to lawmakers about lockdown-flouting parties in his office, a humiliating censure that strips the former prime minister of his lifetime access to Parliament.
Lawmakers backed the finding that Johnson was in contempt of Parliament by 354 votes to 7, after a debate in which many argued it was crucial to show voters that politicians are obliged to follow the rules and tell the truth.
“It is important to show the public that there is not one rule for them and another for us," said Conservative Party lawmaker Theresa May, Johnson's predecessor as prime minister.
Opening the five-hour debate, House of Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt urged lawmakers to “do what they think is right.” Mordaunt, a Conservative like Johnson, said she would vote to endorse the report by the Commons' Privileges Committee.
“This matters because the integrity of our institutions matter. The respect and trust afforded to them matters," she said. "This has real-world consequences for the accountability of members of Parliament to each other and the members of the public they represent."
A handful of Johnson allies spoke up to defend the former leader. Legislator Lia Nici said that “I cannot see where the evidence is where Boris Johnson misled Parliament knowingly, intentionally or recklessly.”
But more Conservatives, and all opposition lawmakers who spoke, said they would back the report. Many Conservative lawmakers were absent from the debate — including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Wary of riling Johnson’s remaining supporters, he stayed away.
Max Blain, Sunak’s spokesman, said the prime minister had "a number of commitments," including a meeting with Sweden's leader.
Johnson, who turned 59 on Monday, was not there either. He stepped down as prime minister in September 2022, but remained a lawmaker until June 9, when he quit after receiving notice of the Privileges Committee’s findings.
Monday’s debate was the latest aftershock from the “partygate” scandal over gatherings in the prime minister’s Downing Street headquarters and other government buildings in 2020 and 2021.
The revelation that political staffers held birthday gatherings, garden parties and “wine time Fridays” during the pandemic sparked anger among Britons who had followed rules imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, unable to visit friends and family or even say goodbye to dying relatives in hospitals.
Labour Party lawmaker Chris Bryant said "there is visceral anger” among voters about partygate.
Memories were revived this week by the Sunday Mirror newspaper’s publication of video showing staffers drinking and dancing at an event at Conservative Party headquarters in December 2020, when people from different households were banned from mixing indoors.
London's Metropolitan Police force said that it was examining footage of the event, which the BBC reported was billed as a “jingle and mingle” Christmas party.
Johnson initially denied that any parties took place at the prime minister's office, and then repeatedly assured lawmakers that pandemic rules and guidance were followed at all times. The committee concluded that those assurances were misleading and that Johnson failed to correct the record when asked to do so.
It said Johnson “misled the House on an issue of the greatest importance to the House and to the public, and did so repeatedly.”
The panel — made up of four Conservatives and three opposition legislators — said Johnson compounded the offense with his attacks on the committee, which he called a “kangaroo court” engaged in a “witch hunt.”
It concluded that Johnson’s actions were such a flagrant violation of the rules that they warranted a 90-day suspension from Parliament, one of the longest ever imposed. A suspension of 10 days or more would have allowed his constituents to remove him from his seat in the House of Commons.
Johnson responded with fury to the report, branding its conclusions “deranged” and accusing its members of “a protracted political assassination.”
He escaped being suspended from Parliament by resigning — “at least for now,” he said, hinting at a potential comeback. That could prove difficult. As a result of Monday's vote, he will be stripped of the lifetime pass to Parliament's buildings customarily given to former lawmakers.
While some Conservatives still laud Johnson as the charismatic populist who led the party to a landslide victory in 2019, others recall how his government became so consumed by scandals that he was forced out by his own party less than three years later.
“I am so over Boris,” Conservative legislator Bob Seely said in the House of Commons.
Johnson's legacy is a headache for Sunak, a fellow Conservative who took office in October with a promise to restore professionalism and integrity to government.
The Conservatives, who have been in power since 2010, trail the main opposition Labour Party in opinion polls, with an election due by the end of 2024.
The party faces electoral tests before that in four special elections for seats vacated by Johnson, two of his allies and a fourth Tory lawmaker who quit over sex and drugs allegations.