Boris Johnson was saying “what he believed to be the truth” when he denied there were any law-breaking No 10 parties, a cabinet minister says – despite attending at least one of them.
The Northern Ireland Secretary hinted that Mr Johnson will accept the police’s verdict only grudgingly – referring to the Met having “taken the view that a fine should be issued”.
And he insisted it is perfectly possible for the a “lawmaker to be a lawbreaker”, because Tony Blair is among ministers issued with parking tickets in the past.
Mr Johnson faces career-threatening allegations that he knowingly misled parliament when he repeatedly denied that any Covid laws were broken – something now known to be untrue.
But Mr Lewis said: “When he spoke to parliament, he was speaking what he believed to be the truth and what he outlined to be the truth.”
Asked whether the prime minister now accepts he broke the rules, Mr Lewis told Sky News: “In the sense that he has paid a fine that the police have decided to issue because the rules were broken.
“But that doesn’t mean that anything he said to parliament was inaccurate at the time. What he said to parliament he believed to be true at the time.”
The argument is crucial to Mr Johnson’s survival chances, because the ministerial code dictates that any minister who knowingly misleads parliament must quit.
It will become more difficult to mount if the prime minister is, as expected, is fined again for other social gatherings during lockdown – including one allegedly held in his own Downing Street flat.
At present, his only fine is for the surprise birthday party held in the cabinet room in June 2020, which No 10 insists was brief and took place between work meetings.
The Commons Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, will decide today whether to allow a vote on whether Mr Johnson has brought parliament into contempt – or should be investigated by a committee of MPs.
Although the government would almost certainly win the vote easily, the opposition parties believe it would at least force Tory MPs to put their support for the prime minister on public view.
Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the Commons defence committee, called for a vote of confidence after the May local elections, to decide if “it is time for change”.
“Unfortunately, many, many MPs continue to be very numbed by this – very, very concerned by where we’re going,” he said.
“If I was the prime minister, I would show leadership here, recognise this requires crisis management as such, and say that ‘these are difficult times, I will give you the opportunity to support me through an actual vote of confidence’.”