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Boris Johnson caves and allows Partygate scandal probe

LONDON — Boris Johnson’s government caved to demands for a parliamentary inquiry into a scandal over his attendance at a lockdown-breaching party after an attempt to fight it off backfired.

Conservative MPs openly criticized Johnson’s administration in a testy House of Commons debate, which culminated in an opposition plan to probe the so-called “Partygate” affair going through unopposed.

Johnson apologized to the Commons this week after being fined by the police for attending a government gathering in June 2020, when indoor meetings were banned under COVID restrictions. Johnson had previously said the rules were followed at all times.

In 24 hours of political drama, the opposition Labour Party tabled a motion calling for Johnson to be investigated by the Commons privileges committee, which deals with contempt of parliament. With crucial local elections looming, Labour is trying to hone in on whether Johnson misled MPs when he claimed he had stuck to the rules.

Seeking to fend off that plan, the government put forward an amendment asking that any parliamentary inquiry be delayed until after the police have completed their investigation and a separate report into the affair by senior civil servant Sue Gray is published in full.

But ministers abruptly pulled that amendment shortly before the debate was due to begin in a bid to head off a revolt by backbench Conservative MPs unhappy at being asked to give cover to Johnson.

With the government’s blessing, MPs eventually “nodded through” Labour’s motion without requiring a vote — effectively clearing the way for an inquiry into Johnson’s conduct by the privileges committee.

A Downing Street spokesman insisted the amendment had only been pulled because the government was now “content” the committee’s inquiry would not pre-empt the police investigation or the Gray report.

In reality, it appeared to be a rearguard action in response to growing discontent in the Conservative ranks, and posed a fresh test to Johnson’s grip on his own party.

Tory MPs who have been critical of their leader welcomed the about-face. William Wragg, who made clear he would back the Labour motion, said he and colleagues were now working in “a toxic atmosphere” that “bears the scars of misjudgments of leadership.”

Others broke cover to join the growing ranks of Tories calling for Johnson to go. Steve Baker, a leading Brexiteer who until now has supported Johnson, said that though he had tried to forgive the leader, his belief now is that “for not obeying the letter and spirit of the law, the prime minister should be long gone.”

Labour leader Keir Starmer said an inquiry was essential, otherwise “we are all complicit in allowing the public to think we are all the same, nobody tells the truth, that there are alternative sets of facts.”

Solicitor General Michael Ellis, answering for the government, said Johnson had apologized “wholeheartedly and unreservedly” to parliament. The Cabinet minister reiterated Johnson’s defense that he did not believe at the time that the event he was fined for broke coronavirus laws. He promised that the prime minister — currently on a trip to India — would return to parliament to answer further questions after the police investigation concludes.

That police investigation is ongoing, but a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police confirmed Thursday they would not be issuing any further fines ahead of next month’s local elections.

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