Boris Johnson faces the prospect of a parliamentary investigation into whether he lied to MPs about Downing Street parties during the coronavirus lockdowns.
In response to a backbench revolt, ministers abandoned attempts to force Conservative MPs to vote for a delay in setting up any investigation, meaning it is now expected to be approved on Thursday – although it will not begin until police inquiries have concluded.
“The prime minister has stood before this House and said things that are not true, safe in the knowledge that he will not be accused of lying because he can’t be,” Sir Keir said. “He has stood at that despatch box and point blank denied rule-breaking took place, when it did.
“As he did so, he was hoping to gain extra protection from our good faith that no prime minister would deliberately mislead the House.”
MPs will decide whether a Commons committee should look into allegations that Mr Johnson misled the House with his repeated denials about Downing Street parties during the coronavirus lockdown.
The prime minister will miss the Commons vote on a Labour-led motion calling for the privileges committee investigation because he is on an official visit to India.
Tory MPs had initially been ordered to back a government amendment which would defer any decision on referring the matter to the committee until after the conclusion of the Met Police inquiry.
But in a late U-turn shortly before the debate began, Commons leader Mark Spencer said there would be a free vote for Tory MPs.
It follows speculation at Westminster that Tory MPs were not prepared to back the government’s attempt to kick the issue into the long grass.
The scale of Tory unease was set out by public administration and constitutional affairs committee chairman William Wragg, who confirmed he had submitted a letter of no confidence in Mr Johnson’s leadership.
“I cannot reconcile myself to the prime minister’s continued leadership of our country and the Conservative Party,” he told MPs.
In a scathing speech, Mr Wragg said: “There can be few colleagues on this side of the House I would contend who are truly enjoying being members of parliament at the moment.
“It is utterly depressing to be asked to defend the indefensible. Each time part of us withers.”
Former minister Steve Baker, an influential organiser on the Tory benches, said Mr Johnson “should be long gone”.
“Really, the prime minister should just know the gig’s up,” Mr Baker, who was a prominent Brexiteer involved in ousting Theresa May, said.
Asked on the first day of his trade mission to India whether he knowingly or unknowingly misled parliament, Mr Johnson said: “Of course not.”
He told reporters: “I’m very keen for every possible form of scrutiny and the House of Commons can do whatever it wants to do. But all I would say is I don’t think that should happen until the investigation is completed.” – PA