Andy Gregory www.independent.co.uk
Maria Caulfield battled through multiple outbursts of incredulous laughter and interjections from the audience in her defence of Mr Johnson on Thursday.
That prompted a fellow panel member to observe that, contrary to the claims of some Tory MPs, “the audience tonight tells us the heat hasn’t gone out of this”.
This week’s panel was asked whether the Metropolitan Police’s decision this week to issue 20 initial fixed penalty notices over Covid rule-breaking in Whitehall meant the prime minister had misled parliament and should resign.
Ms Caulfield, the Tory MP for Lewes responded: “I think misleading parliament, to be found guilty of that, it has to be a deliberate misleading, not inadvertently misleading.”
Pushing through an initial bout of laughter, she insisted that Mr Johnson “has been very clear that there were wrongdoings around the Partygate situation” and “has apologised for that” and “made changes already to No 10”.
Amid several shouts from the audience, Ms Caulfield said: “As someone who did work on the Covid wards during the pandemic, no one is more angry about events that took place in No 10, because while many of us were working on the wards, we weren’t having social gatherings after work. So I fully understand the anger, the frustration at what happened.”
Pressed by another audience member on the fact that the prime minister had “held his hands up now, but only because he was found out”, Ms Caulfield claimed: “He genuinely did not believe that there was wrongdoing.”
But her words prompted mocking laughter and looks of bemused disbelief from the crowd, with Thursday’s host, BBC journalist Victoria Derbyshire, saying: “When people laugh when you say he said he didn’t believe he was at a party, what does that make you think?
Ms Caulfield replied: “As I’ve said, I fully understand the anger and frustration”, but Ms Derbyshire interjected: “That was laughter, that was ridicule. They don’t believe him.”
Moments later, Labour MP Steve Reed said it was “really sad to see Tory MPs like Maria wheeled out to defend the indefensible on this”.
Accusing Boris Johnson of having “believed the laws are for the little people”, Mr Reed added: “He’s showed contempt to the British people, he lied to the British people, he lied to parliament … if he had any decency he would resign.”
Ms Caulfield claimed that it was “a bit rich of the Labour Party” to attack Mr Johnson over Partygate when Sir Keir Starmer “was also investigated for a party”, but was told by the host that “there was no investigation”.
Durham Police said in February it had reviewed footage of the Labour Party leader taken last April and did not “believe an offence has been established” and would “take no further action”.
Mr Reed said that “there was no comparison” between the actions of Sir Keir and Mr Johnson, while a member of the audience shouted, in an apparent riposte to Ms Caulfield: “Two wrongs don’t make a right”.
Interjecting shortly afterwards, Talk Radio host Julia Hartley Brewer said: “I’ve had so many Tory MPs on my radio show who tell me that the heat has gone out of this. I think the audience tonight tells us the heat hasn’t gone out of this.”
Describing the UK as having “an arrogant government, and an arrogant No 10, and an arrogant prime minister who think they’re above us”, she added: “I don’t think we should ever be ruled by people who think they’re better than us and know better than us.
“I’m afraid he has to go, because we should have principles in our government that if you lie to parliament, if you make laws that you then break, you have no business being in charge of this country.”
Appearing in front of senior MPs on the Commons liaison committee on Wednesday, the prime minister repeatedly refused to be drawn on the Partygate scandal and whether he could resign, saying he wouldn’t “give a running commentary on an investigation that is underway”.
SNP MP Pete Wishart told the prime minister he was “pretty much toast” if handed a fine by the police.