Boris Johnson to face MPs' fury over 'partygate'

Mr Boris Johnson can expect a bruising few days as the House of Commons returns from its Easter break. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will face angry lawmakers Tuesday (April 19) for the first time since being fined for breaking the law, as the "partygate" scandal continues to plague him.

The embattled UK leader has weathered the initial storm after being penalised last week for breaching Covid lockdown laws on one occasion in 2020, doggedly defying calls to resign.

But Mr Johnson can expect a bruising few days as the House of Commons returns from its Easter break, with MPs demanding to know why he repeatedly insisted to them that no rules had been broken.

Knowingly misleading Parliament is a breach of government ministers' code of conduct, which states they should resign as a result, and opposition lawmakers are adamant he should go.

However, despite becoming the first modern British leader to be fined for law-breaking and facing further possible penalties as police investigate numerous rules-breaching events in Downing Street, he is digging in.

The 57-year-old will reportedly try to sideline the controversy with a "business as usual" mantra this week, which includes a two-day visit to India starting Thursday.

"The prime minister will have his say... and will outline his version of events and face questions from MPs," government minister Greg Hands told Sky News Monday.

"(He) is getting on with the job, he's delivered, and the government has delivered in anything from the vaccination programme through (to) the strong support for Ukraine."

London's Metropolitan Police Service is investigating dozens of alleged lockdown breaches by Mr Johnson and his staff in the Downing Street complex where he lives and works during the pandemic.

It said last week officers have so far issued more than 50 fines.

The scandal, the latest in a stream of controversies to hit Mr Johnson since last summer, left his position hanging by a thread earlier this year and Conservative MPs in a dangerously rebellious mood.

But he has boosted his survival chances with what is seen as a firm response to the war in Ukraine, which diverted attention away from the furore when he was most vulnerable.

Several Conservative lawmakers who had publicly withdrawn their support for his leadership have reversed course and argued now is not the time for a change of Tory leader.

A growing cost-of-living crisis is also credited with distracting people from the scandal, while Mr Johnson has made several big policy announcements aimed at his pro-Brexit political base.

They include controversial plans to send migrants and asylum seekers who cross the Channel thousands of miles away to Rwanda.

However, commentators doubt he can maintain his party's support if repeatedly fined, his Tories fare poorly in local elections next month and further lurid details of parties emerge.

In an ominous sign last Wednesday, Mr Simon Wolfson, a justice minister, resigned from the government, citing "the scale, context and nature" of the rule breaches.

Several Tories have also renewed calls for him to step down.

Mr Johnson will bid to shore up his standing with them when he addresses a meeting of the Conservative parliamentary party Tuesday evening, according to reports.

However, he could face the further embarrassment of lawmakers voting to refer him to a rarely convened parliament committee which would decide whether he had misled them over "partygate".

Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle is said to be considering whether to allow such a vote, amid pressure from opposition parties.

"Boris Johnson defied his own law and then lied and lied and lied," Ms Angela Rayner, Labour's deputy leader, tweeted last Tuesday. "While the British public were making huge sacrifices, he was rule-breaking."

Mr Johnson is undoubtedly hoping voters' anger over "partygate" has dissipated, but recent polling found they remain furious.

One national survey showed nearly two-thirds of people spoke negatively about the Tory leader, compared to just 16 per cent positively, with the word "liar" the most commonly shared response.

"Overall, 'partygate' dominates views of Boris (Johnson) over Ukraine," said Mr James Johnson, a Conservative pollster who conducted the sample. "Fury has not receded. Many negative comments are by people who liked him previously but have now changed their minds."

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