Boris Johnson is expected to face a Commons inquiry over whether he lied to parliament, after Downing Street dramatically pulled an amendment aimed at forcing Conservative MPs to delay the new Partygate investigation.
Two more Tory MPs called for Johnson to quit from the floor of the Commons, including the influential Brexiter Steve Baker. “The prime minister now should be long gone,” the former minister said. “Really, the prime minister should just know the gig’s up.”
William Wragg, the chair of the Commons’ constitutional affairs committee, said he had written a letter of no confidence in the prime minister and he would have rebelled if the government had not changed course.
“The matter before us is one of the heart of this institution, of our parliament. I love this place, believing it to be place of high ideals and purpose. What is said here matters,” he added.
Bob Neill, who chairs the justice committee, stopped short of calling for Johnson to go but said he had planned to abstain on the Labour motion calling for an inquiry by the privileges committee.
“I am profoundly disappointed in what happened at No 10. People were badly let down, my constituents feel badly let down, I feel personally badly let down and there must be consequences that follow from that,” he said.
Opening the debate, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said it was imperative for MPs to judge if Johnson had deliberately misled them with his denials of Partygate lockdown breaches in Downing Street.
“He has stood before this house and said things that are not true, safe in the knowledge that he will not be accused of lying. He has stood at that dispatch box and point blank denied rule-breaking took place, when it did,” Starmer said.
“As he did so, he was hoping to gain extra protection from our assumption, and from the public assumption, that no prime minister would deliberately mislead the house. He has used our good faith to cover up his misdeeds.”
A senior government source said Johnson, who is on a trade visit to India, had instructed whips to pull the amendment after becoming concerned about accusations of a cover-up.
“The prime minister has always been clear that he’s happy to face whatever inquiries parliament sees fit and is happy for the house to decide how it wishes to proceed today and therefore will not be whipping Conservative MPs,” the source said. “They are free to vote according to how they believe we should move forward on this.”
They added that the amendment on Wednesday night had been tabled to allow an inquiry to take place after the internal Whitehall report by the civil servant Sue Gray is published – although it made no specific commitments that the inquiry would still be allowed.
“We now recognise that – in practice – this is almost certainly likely to be the case and therefore we are happy for the Labour motion to go through if that is the will of the house,” the source said.
There were chaotic scenes in Westminster ahead of the debate on the motion. With minutes to go before the debate, Mark Spencer, the leader of the Commons, told MPs they would have a free vote, saying the prime minister was “keen for the house to decide on the business later today”.
Chris Pincher, the government’s deputy chief whip, then texted Tory MPs telling them Johnson was “happy for the Commons to decide on any referrals to the privileges committee”. He added the government would “no longer move our tabled amendment”. MPs were told they were on a one-line whip – in practice meaning they were free to depart Westminster and head to their constituencies.
On Wednesday Tory whips had scrambled to find a way to block or delay the inquiry by the privileges committee. Even among frontbenchers there was palpable disquiet that MPs should be forced to block an investigation into the prime minister, who received a police fixed-penalty notice last week.
But MPs had privately and publicly asked whips not to give Labour the opportunity to paint them as taking part in a cover-up. Earlier in the Commons, the Tory MP Charles Walker had urged the government to reconsider whipping MPs to delay the inquiry.
“I believe genuinely that the prime minister is a good and decent man and he can make the case to the privileges committee directly without having this house to divide and yet more poison be pumped into public life.”