Conservative MPs have accused Boris Johnson of acting like Donald Trump in his efforts to undermine the Partygate inquiry into whether he lied to parliament.
The former Tory PM is under growing pressure after the privileges committee release a report saying it would have been “obvious” to Mr Johnson that No 10 gatherings breached Covid restrictions.
Mr Johnson said it was “surreal” that the committee of MPs relied on evidence from Sue Gray – the top civil servant set to be appointed Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff.
But a privileges committee spokesperson gas dismissed Mr Johnson’s arguments, saying work was “not based on the Sue Gray report” but on direct witness accounts and government evidence.
Tobias Ellwood, Tory chair of the defence select committee, said: “If we now stay united and disciplined we could win the general election, but not if this latest distraction turns into a Trumpian drag anchor.”
A senior Tory MP told the Observer about the claims made by Mr Johnson and allies: “They have gone full Trump. It is wicked. Where will this end? They are desperate” Another said Johnson was “just like Trump, saying black is white, white is black”.
Sir Bob Neill, Tory chair of the all-party justice select committee, added: “It is wrong for anyone to try to undermine the work of a parliamentary committee.”
The planned move of Ms Gray – who led the Cabinet Office inquiry into lockdown-breaking parties – to a top role with Labour has been leapt on by Mr Johnson and allies as part of attempts to discredit the parliamentary inquiry.
Sir Keir has so far dodged questions about when conversations began with Ms Gray, who is expected to await the decision of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba) before starting the role.
Ms Gray is expected to say that she has only been in talks with Labour about taking up the role for “several weeks”. Labour dismissed claims that Ms Gray’s move to Sir Keir’s office proved a plot to oust the former prime minister as “ludicrous”.
Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, a supporter of Mr Johnson, suggested Ms Gray may well have embarrassing details about Tory ministers.
“She was the head of ethics and propriety, so she will know a lot of things,” he told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday. “But I truly believe she is a woman of integrity, so I’m not worried about that.”
The Tory minister also claimed Mr Johnson was a “wise man” and a “honest man”. Asked if he had showed integrity over Partygate, he said: “Yes, 100%. I do not believe for one second that he knowingly misled parliament.”
Mr Heaton-Harris also said Sir Keir should publish his messages with Ms Gray to clear up any questions about her move. “I think Keir can clear this up in seconds by saying this is what we talked about at that time, there’s nothing to see here.”
Shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Ashworth said hiring “exceptional” Ms Gray shows how seriously the party is taking the prospect of being in government.
“Sue Gray is a woman of exceptional talent, abilities, incredibly high calibre,” he told Sky News. “I think it reveals how seriously Keir Starmer is taking our preparations for government should the British people put their trust in us at the next general election.”
The cross-party privileges committee said Mr Johnson may have misled the Commons multiple times as they set up a live showdown with the former PM later in March.
The MPs’ interim report – which has given him two weeks to prepare his formal response – also found that he failed to correct the record “at the earliest opportunity” and found No 10 advisers struggled to justify gatherings.
WhatsApp messages given to the inquiry show advisers “struggling” with how parties were within the rules, with one conceding an excuse “blows another great gaping hole in the PM’s account”.
The committee said: “The evidence strongly suggests that breaches of guidance would have been obvious to Mr Johnson at the time he was at the gatherings.
“There is evidence that those who were advising Mr Johnson about what to say to the press and in the House were themselves struggling to contend that some gatherings were within the rules.”
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson has also attacked Rishi Sunak’s post-Brexit deal with the EU to resolved the Northern Ireland Protocol row.
Johnson’s camp is said to be expect that the DUP and European Research Group (ERG) will rebel against the deal in the next two weeks.
An ally of Johnson circulated an image of Mr Sunak as Neville Chamberlain waving a piece of paper, sugging the Windsor Framework was similar to the appeaser’s Munich agreement with Hitler, according to the Sunday Times.
Mr Heaton-Harris told Sky News he would try to “cunningly” persuade Mr Johnson of the merits of the compromise deal with Brussels.