Does Boris Johnson's defence hold water?

ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston reports on Boris Johnson's fight to avoid a possible suspension from the Commons after admitting to unintentionally misleading MPs over Partygate

Almost at the beginning of the former prime minister Boris Johnson's written statement to the Commons Privileges Committee, he says: "I accept that the House of Commons was misled by my statements that the Rules and Guidance had been followed completely at No.10".

Mr Johnson did therefore, by his own admission, lie to MPs when he denied that parties that breached Covid-19 structures had taken place on his watch.

But this is not an admission of guilt in relation to the investigation being carried out by the committee. Because Mr Johnson continues: "When the statements were made, they were made in good faith and on the basis of what I honestly knew and believed at the time.

"I did not intentionally or recklessly mislead the House...I would never have dreamed of doing so".

And there is the nub of the issue.

His closely argued defence, drafted with the advice of one of the most respected and highly paid barristers in the UK, Lord Pannick, makes three big points.

First is that the committee is over-reaching when it says that if he "recklessly" misled MPs that would be a punishable contempt.

Mr Johnson argues there is no precedent for "recklessness" being a crime before Parliament.

Which may be true. But then there is no precedent in modern times for a prime minister being investigated by parliament for misleading MPs in the chamber, so pretty much everything about this case is new territory.

It is therefore not surprising that MPs have felt obliged to define the nature of the contempt they are assessing.

Second, the PM accepts that he attended five parties. But he says that if these were breaches of the rules, surely someone at the time would have contemporaneously noted these misdemeanours and crimes in emails or WhatsApp messages.

No one did, he says.

But this absence of self-knowledge in Downing Street can be interpreted in two contrasting ways.

Either the organisers of and participants in the party genuinely thought they were acting in good faith, that they had examined the rules and guidance and assured themselves nothing was awry in congregating to eat and booze during and after work. This is what Mr Johnson argues.

Alternatively, there was a rotten culture at the heart of Mr Johnson's Downing Street, and it is therefore unsurprising that no senior individual there put down on record any anxiety about the party culture then pertaining.

Third, in the case of one occasion when the PM told MPs there were no parties and no rules or guidance were broken, Mr Johnson relies on evidence of conversations to that effect with his then director of communications Jack Doyle, after the Daily Mirror first obtained evidence of a party.

The PM implies he repeated Doyle's denials - which were intended for dissemination to the media rather than to MPs - in part because he did not think the Mirror's revelation was a big deal.

But again this can be read in two conflicting ways: either that the PM was acting in good faith and was misled (intentionally or not) by a middle ranking official; or that the PM was blasé about conduct which he should have known would shock the country.

Perhaps what's most important about Mr Johnson's defence is this: he and Pannick argue as if they are in a court of law; they provide copious detail about every party he attended and every statement to parliament to make it harder for MPs to find that he lied recklessly or intentionally, or failed to correct the record in a timely enough way, beyond reasonable doubt.

For every possible contempt, Johnson comes up with an excuse, some more plausible than others, but nonetheless probably enough to sow doubt in the mind of MPs.

Here is the point.

The Privileges Committee is not a court of law. Parliament has always had its own customs and procedures for regulating the conduct of its members, and sanctioning them when they cross a line.

In its recent preliminary assessment of the case against Mr Johnson, the MPs on the Privileges Committee said they would follow the principles of "fairness and natural justice".

What that assessment also said was that it was reasonable for MPs to have expected a prime minister who wrote and publicly promoted the Covid-19 restrictions, and who attended five parties, to have made a full and frank disclosure about what he knew and witnessed in a prompt and timely way - rather than for weeks denying, obfuscating and sub-contracting an investigation to a third party (the second permanent secretary Sue Gray).

The tension between Mr Johnson and the Privileges Committee is not about the facts. Most of these are not contested. It is about something fundamental to the nature of government, namely leadership and responsibility.

Mr Johnson did not challenge the lawfulness and propriety of the parties he attended, at the time he attended them. So much is clear, but is irrelevant to the committee's investigation.

What is relevant is whether alarm bells should have rung for him as and when the Mirror and ITV started disclosing the scale of the partygoing culture in Downing Street, partygoing that shocked millions of British people because it was so different from how they felt compelled to behave during the pandemic by Mr Johnson himself.

Was Mr Johnson as head of the government right to accept the minimising statements of his colleagues and officials, who had their own reputations to protect and who were paid to put the best gloss on the activities of Mr Johnson and his ministers?

That is the judgement that will decide his fate.

What did Boris Johnson really know about Downing Street’s notorious parties? With fresh revelations from our sources, in their own words, listen to the definitive behind-closed-doors story of one of the biggest scandals of our era.