Downing Street parties: John Major attacks Johnson’s ‘brazen excuses’ over Downing Street partygate

Boris Johnson broke lockdown laws and must go if he deliberately lied to Parliament, former prime minister Sir John Major has said as he struck out at the “brazen excuses” issued over partygate allegations.

The Conservative grandee launched a scathing speech on Thursday as the Prime Minister refused to say whether he would resign if he is fined by police investigating alleged breaches of coronavirus regulations.

Sir John said ministers had regularly been sent to “defend the indefensible”, making the UK Government look “distinctly shifty”, as he suggested MPs have a “duty” to act to restore trust in politics.

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Mr Johnson is expected to be among the more than 50 individuals in No. 10 and Whitehall who will receive legal questionnaires from officers working on Operation Hillman.

Former prime minister Sir John Major during his keynote speech at the Institute for Government, central London, on the issue of trust and standards in a democracy. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

But he deflected questions about whether he will quit if Scotland Yard issues him with a fixed penalty notice over any possible breach of coronavirus regulations.

Speaking in London, Sir John said “deliberate lies to Parliament have been fatal to political careers” and “must always be so”.

“At No. 10, the Prime Minister and officials broke lockdown laws,” he told the Institute for Government.

“Brazen excuses were dreamed up. Day after day the public was asked to believe the unbelievable. Ministers were sent out to defend the indefensible, making themselves look gullible or foolish.

“Collectively, this has made the Government look distinctly shifty, which has consequences that go far beyond political unpopularity. No Government can function properly if its every word is treated with suspicion.”

A long-standing critic of Mr Johnson, Sir John said trust in politics has hit a “low ebb, eroded by foolish behaviour”, while “too often, ministers have been evasive, and the truth has been optional”.

Sir John, who led the country from 1990 to 1997, stopped short of directly calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation at this moment, suggesting he would await the verdict of the Metropolitan Police inquiry.

But asked if any leader found to have broken the law should resign, he responded: “That has always been the case.”

In Brussels, Mr Johnson said he would not outline how he will respond until the police investigation concludes as he was questioned about his political future during a press conference with Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg to discuss Russian aggression against Ukraine.

“That process must be completed and I’m looking forward to it being completed and that’s the time to say more on that,” the Prime Minister said.

Speaking later during a visit to Poland, Mr Johnson insisted a claim by Sir John that Britain’s reputation abroad was being “shredded” as a result of the current controversy was “demonstrably untrue”.

Further Conservative MPs are poised to call for a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister if he is fined, or further damaging details emerge from the Sue Gray inquiry.

Scotland Yard said it would be dispatching the questionnaires by the end of the week as officers consider whether to widen the investigation to cover a Christmas quiz in No. 10 in December 2020.

Police are reconsidering their decision not to include that event after a photograph emerged of Mr Johnson and colleagues near an open bottle of sparkling wine.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick suggested some of those being contacted by officers will end up with fines.

“Clearly, some, but probably not all, of those people may very well end up with a ticket,” she told BBC Radio London.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Mr Johnson had not been contacted by police and that he would not receive “bespoke personal legal advice” from Government lawyers.

Adam Wagner, a lawyer who has been examining Covid-19 regulations, described the dispatching of questionnaires as “very significant” because it means the police think they are approaching a point where they can start issuing fines.

The human rights barrister told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It sounds to me, although I haven’t seen the letters, that they’ve decided that relevant gatherings were potentially a breach of the regulations and now they’re asking people ‘did you have some sort of reasonable excuse?’, which, in law, would effectively be a defence for being there.”

Mr Wagner said a fixed penalty notice was the most likely punishment that would be issued by police as they investigate 12 gatherings.

With Mr Johnson alleged to have been at up to six of them, the lawyer suggested breaches would tot up cumulatively so the Prime Minister “could still be in line for over £10,000 worth of fixed penalty notices if they accumulate”.

Defence secretary Ben Wallace acknowledged more damaging photos of events could be leaked in coming days.

“Yes, there could be a photograph tomorrow, the next day or the day after – that’s clearly what’s behind some of the people’s motives,” he told Times Radio.

An interim report last week by senior official Ms Gray disclosed police are investigating 12 different events at No. 10 and Whitehall over the course of 2020 and 2021 for possible breaches of Covid rules.

They include the notorious “bring your own booze” event in the Downing Street garden in May 2020 attended by Mr Johnson, and a gathering in the Prime Minister’s official flat in November 2020.

The Met said the Operation Hillman team were continuing to examine more than 500 documents and 300 images provided to them by the Cabinet Office and will be seeking further information to assist their inquiry.

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