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Boris Johnson did not knowingly lie to parliament about lockdown party, transport minister says

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LONDON, May 24 (Reuters) - A British minister defended Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday over photographs of him drinking at a coronavirus lockdown-breaking gathering at Downing Street, saying he did not knowingly lie to parliament about the event.

New photographs of Johnson drinking at a leaving party in Downing Street in November 2020 were published by ITV News on Monday, reigniting opposition accusations that he breached his own COVID-19 lockdown rules and calls for his resignation. read more

Accounts and photos of alcohol-fuelled events at Downing Street when coronavirus rules meant people could not socialise or even, in many cases, attend funerals for loved ones, have dogged the prime minister for months, undermining his authority.

When asked in parliament in December last year about reports of a party on Nov. 13, 2020, Johnson said he was sure "the rules were followed at all times".

"He didn't knowingly lie," transport minister Grant Shapps told ITV. "I think what happened is he stepped into something."

"What is said to parliament is to the best of your knowledge, sometimes we don't have all the facts to hand."

Shapps told Sky News: "The question is was he down there partying? No, clearly not ... he is at the end of a busy day, he walks down, he says cheers to someone who has worked there and walks out, and to him that is not a party."

Johnson's spokesman declined to comment directly on the Nov. 13 events, saying the prime minister would answer questions in parliament once a report by senior civil servant Sue Gray into lockdown-breaking events in Downing Street had been published.

Monday's photographs appear to show Johnson making a speech and raising a toast, with a glass in his hand, standing next to a table on top of which are several open wine bottles.

It was the latest in a series of photographs and accounts of parties at Johnson's office and residence in Downing Street.

The BBC's Panorama programme cited insiders as saying staff crowded together at such events, and how, sometimes in the morning when arriving for work, they were met with bottles littering parts of the building. Some parties went on so late, they said, some ended up staying all night.

One, speaking anonymously, said they felt they had permission from Johnson to hold such events because he was there, even if just passing through to his flat.

"He wasn't saying, 'Can everyone break up and go home? Can everyone socially distance? Can everyone put masks on? No, he wasn't telling anybody that. He was grabbing a glass for himself," the insider, voiced by an actor, said.

In November 2020, large gatherings with people outside of your own household were banned after England had been put back into a national lockdown due to rising cases of COVID-19.

Opposition Labour lawmaker Catherine West, who initially asked Johnson about the event in parliament, told Times Radio: "It is pretty basic to want the prime minister of this country to tell the truth."

But lawmakers in the governing Conservative Party were split. Roger Gale, a long-standing critic of Johnson, accused the prime minister of misleading parliament and said "that is a resignation issue".

Another lawmaker speaking on condition of anonymity said most in the party were waiting for the Gray report and the results of an investigation by the Committee of Privileges on whether Johnson did mislead parliament before taking any action.

"We're all getting a bit tired of making excuses for Boris, however," the lawmaker said. "It's bad enough apologising for something one may have done oneself, without having to carry the can for someone else."

Reporting by Kylie MacLellan and Elizabeth Piper, editing by Kirsten Donovan
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