By Alistair Smout and William James
LONDON (Reuters) -British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a blow to his authority on Thursday when an influential lawmaker called on him to quit and opposition parties looked likely to force an investigation into whether he had misled parliament.
Johnson has been fighting for political survival for months after he told parliament that his Downing Street office had followed all lockdown rules during the COVID pandemic, only for an internal report to find it had held alcohol-fuelled parties at that time.
Police have since fined Johnson. He denies deliberately misleading parliament, which is a resigning matter, and says he made a mistake, not realising he was breaking the rules. He has apologised for his conduct.
In a parliamentary debate before lawmakers vote on whether Johnson should face an investigation for contempt of parliament by its Committee of Privileges, one once loyal lawmaker from the ruling Conservatives said the prime minister should now quit.
Steve Baker accused Johnson of breaking the “letter and spirit” of the law, adding: “The prime minister now should be long gone… (He) should just know that the gig’s up.”
Baker, a former minister, strongly supported Johnson over taking Britain out of the European Union and he retains influence among some Conservative lawmakers after successfully coordinating their resistance to efforts to water down Brexit.
Johnson said he understood the feelings of lawmakers like Baker but said it would not be right to resign.
“I don’t want this thing to endlessly go on. But I have absolutely nothing, frankly, to hide,” Johnson told Sky News when asked about the investigations during a visit to India.
Johnson’s government had sought to delay a decision on any parliamentary investigation until after police complete their probe into the alleged lockdown breaches.
But the government abandoned that plan at the last minute. Some Conservatives had been uneasy at the prospect of being ordered to oppose greater scrutiny of an issue that has damaged voters’ trust in the government.
The government said it was now satisfied that any parliamentary probe would only take place after the police investigation had finished, even without their proposed amendment.
Johnson’s spokesman said Conservative lawmakers had been told they could vote however they wished or not attend the vote at all. That means the parliamentary investigation could be approved later on Thursday.
If the motion is approved, Johnson might face the release of further evidence of parties at the heart of government during the stringent lockdowns he had ordered the country to observe.
He may also be fined again for further gatherings, although police said they would delay further updates on their investigation until after local elections on May 5.
To mount a challenge to Johnson’s leadership, 54 Conservative lawmakers must write letters expressing no confidence in him. That would lead to a confidence vote and, if he lost, a contest to replace him.
Johnson’s position had recently been strengthened by his support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion but the vote later on Thursday may illustrate the extent of discontent among his own lawmakers.
Opposition leader Keir Starmer led the criticism of Johnson.
“The prime minister has been accused of repeatedly, deliberately and routinely misleading this House over parties held in Downing Street during lockdown,” Starmer said.
“This is a serious and grave accusation. It amounts to contempt of parliament.”
(Additional reporting by Farouq Suleiman in London and Andrew MacAskill in Ahmedabad. Writing by Kate Holton and Alistair Smout; Editing by William Schomberg, Gareth Jones and Nick Macfie)