UK lawmakers approve investigation into whether Johnson lied to parliament

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British lawmakers on Thursday triggered an investigation into allegations that Prime Minister Boris Johnson misled parliament in his initial responses to reports that he and his staff broke Covid-19 lockdown rules.

Lawmakers approved a motion calling for a parliamentary committee to determine whether Johnson’s denials of rule-breaking amounted to a contempt of the House of Commons in light of his subsequent police fine for breaching regulations.

The motion was passed without any opposition after the government abandoned an earlier attempt to delay any decision on whether or not to hold the investigation.

The move, approved by cries of “aye” and without a formal vote in the House of Commons, means parliament’s Committee of Privileges will investigate whether Johnson knowingly misled parliament — historically a resigning offense if proven.

The probe piles more pressure on a Conservative 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 own up to it.

Johnson’s Conservatives have a substantial majority in parliament, but many lawmakers are uneasy with the prime minister’s behaviour. The government initially said it would order Conservative lawmakers to oppose Labour’s motion, but later backtracked in the face of party disquiet and gave them a free vote.

Johnson wasn’t attending the vote on a scandal that has rocked his leadership of the country and the Conservative Party. He was more than 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) away in India, insisting he wanted to “get on with the job” of leading the country.

First British PM to break the law while in office   

Johnson was fined 50 pounds ($66) 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.

He has apologised, but denied he knowingly broke the rules. Johnson’s shifting defense — initially saying there were no illegal gatherings, then claiming it “did not occur to me” that the birthday event was a party — has drawn derision and outrage from opponents, who have 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. 

Usually lawmakers are forbidden from accusing one another of lying, but Blackford was not reprimanded by the Speaker.

‘Utterly depressing’

A growing number of Conservatives are uncomfortable about defending a leader who broke rules he imposed on the country. Until now, many have indicated they will wait and see whether public anger translates into losses for the party at local elections on May 5.

A few have called openly for Johnson to go, and the number is growing.

“It is utterly depressing to be asked to defend the indefensible,” said Conservative legislator William Wragg. “Each time part of us withers.”

Lawmaker Steve Baker, until now a prominent supporter of Johnson, said that Johnson “should be long gone” for violating the “letter and spirit” of the rules.”

Johnson and his allies argue that it would be reckless for the country to change leaders now amid the war in Ukraine and a cost-of-living squeeze sparked by soaring prices for energy and food.

As he flew out to India for a two-day visit focused on boosting economic ties, Johnson again denied knowingly misleading parliament and insisted he would lead the Conservatives into the next national election, due by 2024. 

He said aboard his plane to the western Indian state of Gujarat that there might be “some imaginary circumstances in which I might have to resign, but I don’t propose to go into them. I can’t think of them right now.”

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

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