Boris Johnson did not knowingly mislead Parliament over partygate, a senior Cabinet minister has said.
Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris offered a staunch defence of the former prime minister on Sunday, after a Privileges Committee report found that evidence strongly suggested breaches of coronavirus rules would have been “obvious” to Johnson.
Heaton-Harris, who served as Johnson’s chief whip, said he “does not believe for one second” that the former PM misled MPs.
Speaking on Sophy Ridge On Sunday on Sky News, he said Johnson is “100%” a man of integrity, adding: “I do not believe for one second Boris knowingly misled Parliament.
“I don’t think he will be found to have misled Parliament.
“In this country, you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty. I’m absolutely convinced Boris did not knowingly mislead Parliament.”
He later repeated his defence on the Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme, but was pressed on whether this is the official Government line.
Heaton-Harris replied: “I don’t think there’s a Government official position. There’s a parliamentary process going on. And I think we would wait to see what came out of that parliamentary process.”
The cross-party committee inquiry on Friday said the Commons may have been misled at least four times, with MPs set to cross-examine Johnson later this month.
Johnson has claimed the inquiry’s preliminary report showed he was being “vindicated”, while he and his allies have sought to cast doubt on civil service investigator Sue Gray’s own report into events in Downing Street following her surprise move to Sir Keir Starmer’s office.
According to the written evidence in the committee’s interim report, Johnson remarked that a mid-pandemic leaving party in No 10 was “probably the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now”.
WhatsApp messages given to the inquiry show advisers “struggling” with how parties were within the rules, with one conceding an excuse “blows another great gaping hole in the PM’s account”.
The committee said: “The evidence strongly suggests that breaches of guidance would have been obvious to Mr Johnson at the time he was at the gatherings.
“There is evidence that those who were advising Mr Johnson about what to say to the press and in the House were themselves struggling to contend that some gatherings were within the rules.”
In what is likely to be a highly anticipated appearance, Johnson is expected to give oral evidence as part of the inquiry, in a session broadcast live on television, in the week starting March 20.
Johnson received one of the 126 fines issued by Scotland Yard over lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street and Whitehall.
If found to have lied to Parliament and suspended for more than ten days, he could be forced to face a by-election.