LONDON — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak emerged unscathed from a day of parliamentary drama after convincingly winning a key Brexit vote, while former Premier Boris Johnson cut a defensive figure as he denied lying to lawmakers during the so-called Partygate scandal.
Sunak won the vote on a crucial element of the new deal he struck last month with the European Union by an overwhelming margin of 515 votes to 29 on Wednesday, despite a rebellion by 22 Tories, including his predecessors Johnson and Liz Truss.
Meanwhile Johnson faced a grilling lasting over three hours by the House of Commons Privileges Committee on whether he “intentionally or recklessly” misled Parliament over Partygate, a series of rule-breaking gatherings in Downing Street during the pandemic.
Under intense questioning from members of Parliament, Johnson acknowledged misleading MPs when he said all rules had been followed in No. 10, but denied doing so deliberately. He swore “hand on heart” he had not lied to the House of Commons.
Johnson also repeatedly insisted the gatherings were “work events,” adding: “People who say we were partying in lockdown simply do not know what they are talking about.”
Sunak’s parliamentary victory and Johnson’s long, and at times heated, hearing — broadcast live on TV — will have bolstered the prime minister and his position at the head of the governing Conservative Party after months of speculation in Westminster about Johnson’s possible return to power.
Sunak is looking to win the Tories a historic fifth term in office in a general election expected next year, but his party has trailed the opposition Labour Party by a double-digit polling margin for months.
The premier was buoyed by the result of the vote on the Stormont Brake, which seeks to give Northern Ireland’s politicians a veto over the application of new European Union rules in that region and forms a key part of the deal he brokered last month with the bloc.
Robert Hayward, a Conservative peer and elections analyst, told Bloomberg: “The Northern Ireland vote has markedly strengthened Rishi’s position and in the long run will be more politically significant than the drama of the privileges committee.”
Johnson’s chances of a comeback, meanwhile, had “further diminished” due to Sunak’s progress and the smaller-than-expected Tory rebellion, Hayward said.
Truss’ and Johnson’s declarations that they would oppose the government, along with the stance of the Tory Brexiteer caucus known as the European Research Group had raised the prospect of a sizable Tory rebellion. In the event, it was smaller than anticipated, numbering just 22, although the ERG claimed there was in fact a wider Tory rebellion by pointing to the number of abstentions.
The final numbers suggested the waning influence of Johnson over Conservative backbenchers, after he was forced to resign as prime minister last July following a series of scandals. His successor, Truss, lasted just seven weeks after her tax plans roiled the markets.
Nevertheless, Sunak faces struggles on multiple fronts: not least the cost-of-living crisis after UK inflation unexpectedly surged Wednesday to 10.4%, raising the prospect of another increase in interest rates.
He also chose the busy parliamentary day to release his long-awaited tax return, which showed he paid more than 1 million pounds ($1.2 million) in U.K. taxes over the past three years — with earnings from investments and capital gains far outweighing his political salary.
Johnson, who views Sunak as instrumental in his downfall and has since been a thorn in his side, tried to draw the premier into the Partygate saga by suggesting that if COVID-19 rules had been broken in Downing Street then he should have known as well.
“It must have been obvious to others in the building, including the current prime minister,” Johnson told the committee.
Sunak was Chancellor of the Exchequer throughout the pandemic, and had a flat in Downing Street. He and Johnson both received police fines for attending one of the gatherings.
The panel isn’t expected to deliver its verdict for weeks. If Johnson is found in contempt of Parliament, he could be suspended from the House of Commons. Any suspension longer than 10 days could prompt a recall by-election in his constituency.
But the inquiry is also potentially hugely damaging to Johnson’s reputation and future career in politics, even if such a sanction is not handed down.
He was at pains to insist that gatherings in Downing Street were “essential” because he was thanking staff members for their work, despite rules in place at the time that banned such events. He blasted the inquiry — whose chairman is the Labour veteran Harriet Harman — as “manifestly unfair,” but ended his appearance with an appeal.
“I come before you this afternoon in full confidence you will be impartial and that you will look at the evidence and that you will conclude that I did not wittingly or recklessly mislead Parliament,” Johnson said. “There’s not a shred of evidence to suggest I did. And I hope you will exonerate me.”
(Bloomberg reporter Ellen Milligan contributed to this story.)