British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a blow to his authority when lawmakers ordered a parliamentary investigation into his past denials that he broke coronavirus restrictions by attending illegal gatherings during the pandemic.
Johnson on Thursday faced stinging criticism from his own Conservative party and an influential former ally called on him to quit over what has become known as the “Partygate” scandal, which has caused widespread public anger.
The investigation will look into whether Johnson knowingly misled the Parliament of the United Kingdom – ordinarily a resigning offence if proven. But a bullish Johnson – on a two-day trip to India – insisted he was not going anywhere.
In India, Johnson vowed he would not quit and intended to fight the next general election – still likely at least two years away. “I understand people’s feelings,” he told Sky News.
But he said of stepping aside: “I don’t think that is the right thing to do. What I am determined to do is make sure we continue with our agenda.”
The investigation by Parliament’s privileges committee will begin once London police have finished their own probe and an internal report on the scandal is published in full.
The parliamentary probe piles more pressure on the prime minister, whose grip on power has been shaken by claims he flouted the pandemic rules he imposed on the country, then repeatedly failed to uphold them.
One national survey this week found about two-thirds of the public spoke negatively about Johnson, compared to just 16 percent positively, with the word “liar” the most commonly shared response.
‘Principle under attack’
The move was instigated by the opposition Labour Party and passed after the government abandoned efforts to get Conservative lawmakers to block it. Johnson’s Conservatives have a substantial majority in Parliament, but many lawmakers are uneasy with the prime minister’s behaviour.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said the move sought to uphold “the simple principle that honesty, integrity and telling the truth matter in our politics”.
“It is a British principle … guiding members from every political party in this House,” Starmer said. “But it is a principle under attack.”
Johnson was fined 50 pounds ($65) by police last week for attending his own birthday party in his office in June 2020, when people in Britain were barred from meeting up with friends and family, or even visiting dying relatives. Johnson is the first British prime minister ever found to have broken the law while in office.
Further penalties for other events could follow, but police said on Thursday that they will not announce any new fines issued until after local elections on May 5.
Johnson has since apologised but denied he knowingly broke the rules. His shifting defence – initially saying there were no illegal gatherings, then claiming it “did not occur to me” that his birthday event was a party – has drawn derision and outrage from opponents who called for him to quit.
“The truth is simple and it’s this – he lied to avoid getting caught and once he got caught he lied again,” Scottish National Party lawmaker Ian Blackford said in the House of Commons.
To mount a challenge to Johnson’s leadership, 54 Conservative lawmakers must write letters expressing no confidence in him. That would lead to a confidence vote and, if he lost, a contest to replace him.