Boris Johnson may emerge from a televised grilling next week over claims he misled parliament about Partygate unscathed and go on to lead the Conservative party again, a former cabinet minister has said.
Kwasi Kwarteng, who was made business secretary by the former prime minister before a short-lived stint as chancellor under Liz Truss due to his notorious mini-budget, said he would “never rule out” a return by Johnson to frontline politics.
The prediction came as a nine-month inquiry into allegations Johnson misled MPs by denying any Covid rules were breached at No 10 during lockdown comes to a head, when he is hauled before the cross-party privileges committee.
For up to four hours, Johnson is set to be quizzed on what he knew about the law-breaking gatherings, for which Scotland Yard handed out over 100 fines, leading to mounting pressure among Tory MPs for him to quit.
Ahead of the showdown, Johnson has been practising for the televised hearing with his legal team, with a “bombshell” document dozens of pages long prepared by his lawyers that will lay out his defence.
It will be sent to the committee on Monday afternoon and is said to be a detailed factual rebuttal of the suggestion that he knowingly misled parliament.
Johnson has been given permission to publish his own written evidence by the committee, which has also committed to publishing “as soon as is practicably possible” to conduct due diligence, such as redacting officials’ names.
On hand to offer legal advice to Johnson at the hearing at 2.30pm on Wednesday will be Lord Pannick KC. However, the former prime minister will have to answer all questions personally.
Kwarteng said Johnson was a “hugely intelligent, sensitive, brilliant person” and suggested he could escape unscathed from Wednesday’s hearing.
“I think he’s been written off so many times,” the former chancellor told GB News. “The last 25 years, the number of articles that I’ve read saying he’s finished, he’s done and it’s over.
“I think anything can happen. I think he could lead the party again, I think he’s someone who I would never rule out or count out.”
Kwarteng added that the Tories’ hope of winning the next general election “rests on a single fact, and that fact should be Tory unity” and stressed that colleagues “have to back the prime minister … as one”.
Johnson’s allies are testing support for him among colleagues, to gauge how many might vote down any sanction recommended by the committee.
They fear the harshest penalty handed down could be a suspension from parliament for 10 days – triggering a recall petition and potential byelection in Johnson’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency.
Oliver Dowden, the Cabinet Office minister, said on Sunday it was “standard practice” that so-called House matters are not whipped, meaning MPs are likely to get a free vote instead.
Johnson’s supporters have long sought to discredit the inquiry. Over the weekend, they stepped up their attacks on the inquiry that all MPs voted to begin last April.
Lord Cruddas, a former Conservative party treasurer to whom Johnson gave a peerage in 2020, has urged the privileges committee not to rely on a report into the illegal parties compiled by the senior civil servant Sue Gray, given she later took up a job offer from Labour.
A petition was also launched by the Conservative Post website, which called on the four Tory MPs who make up the majority of committee members to withdraw.
Warnings that the “witch-hunt” was evidence of a “McCarthyite approach to justice” were issued over the weekend by Lord Greenhalgh, the vice-president of the Conservative Democratic Organisation.
A spokesperson for the former prime minister said: “The privileges committee will vindicate Boris Johnson’s position. The evidence will show that Boris Johnson did not knowingly mislead parliament.”