Boris Johnson’s chances of staging a political comeback were hanging by a thread last night after an explosive parliamentary report published evidence suggesting he did mislead the House of Commons over partygate and his own supporters cast doubt on the scale of his rebellion against Rishi Sunak’s Brexit deal.
Damning WhatsApp messages between No10 officials during the partygate row – and disclosed just two days ago – reveal that even senior staff in Downing Street struggled to defend the line that covid rules were not being broken.
The report by the Commons privileges committee set out four ways in which they believe Mr Johnson “may have” misled MPs in December 2021 when he claimed that no rules were broken inside No10.
One newly released message to the committee suggested that eight months before the partygate story broke in 2021, senior Downing Street staff were concerned that news might emerge of rule-breaking in No10, with one official saying a colleague was “worried about leaks of PM having a piss up and to be fair I don’t think it’s unwarranted”.
And in a sign that the ex-prime minister’s political share price is dropping, even MPs loyal to Mr Johnson said they did not expect many Tories to join him in voting against Mr Sunak’s Windsor Framework agreement in the Commons.
But the former prime minister issued a staunch defence of his role in partygate, insisting that the report “vindicates” him that he did not mislead parliament.
He told BBC News he did not “know or suspect” that events broke the rules when he spoke about them in the Commons.
Mr Johnson said “after ten months of effort” the committee had not produced evidence “to suggest otherwise”, adding: “I didn’t mislead the House and I don’t believe I am guilty of contempt. I think that this process happily will vindicate me. I believed what we were doing was within the rules.”
The ex-prime minister will give evidence in person to the committee, which is chaired by the Labour MP Harriet Harman but consists of a majority of Tory MPs, later this month.
Even if the committee finds Mr Johnson did mislead parliament, the outcome will centre on whether he did so inadvertently, intentionally or even recklessly – with each scenario carrying different penalties.
But it would be difficult for him to muster a fresh challenge for the Tory leadership if he is found in contempt of parliament.
In their report, the committee said: “The evidence strongly suggests that breaches of guidance would have been obvious to Mr Johnson at the time he was at the gatherings.
“There is evidence that those who were advising Mr Johnson about what to say to the press and in the House were themselves struggling to contend that some gatherings were within the rules.”
They cite a WhatsApp sent by Jack Doyle, then Mr Johnson’s director of communications, on 25 January 2022 saying of the PM’s birthday party gathering in the Cabinet room “Haven’t heard any explanation of how it’s in the rules”. When someone suggested it could be described as “reasonably necessary for work purposes”, Mr Doyle said: “not sure that one works does it. Also blows another great gaping hole in the PM’s account doesn’t it?”
A minister said whether Mr Johnson will have to quit as an MP or be consigned to the backbenches all “depends how definite the final report is”.
The minister told i: “It’s looking like trouble for him I would say. They say interim report but if the final confirms misleading then it’s going to be difficult.”
An MP supporter of Mr Johnson said they thought his return to the leadership was further away after strategist Isaac Levido shared party data on how the Tories could retain power at the next election at a party away day this week.
They also said the controversy over Keir Starmer appointing Sue Gray as his chief of staff was “getting people excited” about the potential damage to Labour, and that the largely positive Tory reaction to the Brexit deal had improved the situation for Mr Sunak.
Asked about the prospect of a return for Mr Johnson, the MP ally of his said: “I would say we’re further than that than we were a few weeks ago.”
Another supporter of the ex-PM said there was a “lot of unity” in the Conservative party this week.
The former minister said they doubted whether Mr Johnson, who has pledged to vote against Mr Sunak’s Brexit deal, would be joined by many MPs in the No lobby: “The mood in the party is that the deal isn’t perfect but it’s the best we can get from the EU. There isn’t going to be a massive rebellion.”