British Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologised to parliament on Tuesday after he was fined by police for breaking lockdown rules, saying he did not know a birthday gathering at the height of the pandemic was in breach of the rules he had set.
On the same day that opposition lawmakers secured a vote later this week into whether Johnson should be investigated over claims he misled parliament by repeatedly denying any breach, he said he now realised he was in the wrong, reports Reuters.
Johnson said that at the time it had not occurred to him he was in breach of the rules. He said the public had the right to expect higher standards.
“As soon as I received the notice, I acknowledged the hurt and the anger, and I said that people had a right to expect better of their prime minister,” Johnson told parliament.
Opponents have called for Johnson to resign, accusing him of misleading parliament after he told lawmakers last year that all rules were followed in Downing Street – the prime minister’s official residence and workplace – during the pandemic.
Labour leader Keir Starmer urged lawmakers to remove the prime minister to “bring decency, honesty and integrity back into our politics and stop the denigration of everything this country stands for”.
Pressure to resign from Johnson’s own lawmakers has abated with the war in Ukraine in which he has sought to play a leading role in the West’s response. While a handful have repeated calls for him to go, most say now is not the time.
However, Mark Harper, a former Conservative chief whip who once helped maintain party discipline, used the occasion to tell Johnson in the chamber that he needed to quit, saying he did not believe “he is worthy of the great office that he holds”.
Lindsay Hoyle, the House of Commons Speaker, granted opposition parties’ request for a vote on Thursday on whether Johnson should be referred to the privileges committee for an inquiry.
Under the ministerial code, knowingly misleading parliament is an offence that should result in resignation.
However, the motion is unlikely to pass because Johnson retains the support of most lawmakers in his Conservative Party and can still command a majority in parliament. But the debate will draw fresh attention to his conduct.
Johnson insisted in December that “all guidance was followed completely” over the lockdown restrictions. He was fined by the police last week after a damning internal inquiry found his staff had enjoyed alcohol-fuelled parties when people from different households were not allowed to meet indoors.
In his first statement to parliament since being handed the fine, Johnson attempted to deflect some of the criticism by talking about other issues he is dealing with, including the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis and immigration.
The pressure is likely to build on the prime minister, however, with other Conservative lawmakers expected to take the party’s performance in local elections on May 5 and voter perceptions of the prime minister into account.
A poll by J L Partners for The Times newspaper, which asked almost 2,000 people to give their view of the prime minister in a few words, found comments from 72% of respondents were negative, compared to 16% that were positive. The most common word used was “liar”, it reported.
John Whittingdale, a former Conservative minister, said that while many of his constituents are angry, now was not the time to replace the prime minister because of the war in Ukraine.
“We currently face the gravest crisis in our global security for a long time and it is essential that we remain focused on beating Putin and stopping the aggression against Ukraine,” he said.