Boris Johnson insisted “hand on heart” on Wednesday that he did not lie to the House of Commons when he told MPs that he had not known that gatherings in Downing Street breached lockdown rules during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The former UK prime minister’s comments came at the start of evidence to the House of Commons privileges committee investigating his claims that no rules were broken at gatherings in Downing Street and Whitehall during coronavirus restrictions in 2020 and 2021 that became known as the “partygate” scandal.

Johnson said there was a period when a number of parties happened in Downing Street that breached guidance at the time. “That was wrong, I bitterly regret it, I understand the public anger and continue to apologise for what happened under my watch and take full responsibility,” he said.

But he added that the question was not whether the parties had occurred but about whether he had told the truth when he said he was not aware of any lockdown breaches during the period.

“I’m here to say to you, hand on heart, that I did not lie to the house. When those statements were made they were made in good faith,” he told the committee. Johnson was forced out of office last year by the resignations of dozens of ministers following multiple scandals under his premiership.

Johnson is facing a pivotal moment in his political career. If the committee concludes he committed contempt by deliberately misleading parliament, members would be expected to consider recommending potential sanctions, including a formal apology or suspension from the Commons.

MPs would vote on the proposed sanctions. A suspension of at least 10 days would enable voters in Johnson’s constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip to hold a “recall petition” to trigger a by-election.

Johnson told the committee that as soon as the official inquiry and Metropolitan Police investigation in to partygate had completed last summer he came to the Commons to update MPs.

“I was deeply shocked when fines were issued,” he said, adding that Sue Gray, the senior civil servant who led the inquiry, had told him she did not think “the threshold of criminality had been reached.”

Johnson said that if there had been any “anxiety” among officials about the party there was no doubt it would have been “escalated” up to him. He also complained that the committee had not published some of the evidence that was crucial to his defence.

The committee began its inquiry on June 29 2022, and has since assessed a range of evidence, including 46 WhatsApp messages between Johnson and government officials, photo evidence and input from the former prime minister’s legal team. It said in an interim report this month that he may have misled parliament about the Downing Street parties after concluding that breaches of Covid rules would have been obvious to the then prime minister.

On Tuesday, ahead of the hearing, Johnson released a 52-page written submission to the privileges committee. In the document he accepted he had made erroneous statements to parliament by saying Covid rules and guidance had been followed at all times — but blamed advice from officials.

In her opening comments, Harriet Harman, Labour chair of the cross-party committee, argued that misleading the House was a matter of “great importance”, adding: “Our democracy is based on parliament scrutinising legislation and holding the government to account for its actions.”

While Johnson’s allies have dismissed the committee as a “kangaroo court”, Harman pointed out that the committee of seven MPs is made up of four Conservative members, two Labour and one from the Scottish National party.


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