Boris Johnson faces partygate showdown as new evidence is released
Boris Johnson faces a momentous showdown with MPs on Wednesday in a grilling that stands to potentially bring down his political career and define his legacy.
Ahead of the former UK prime minister appearing before the Privileges Committee for a live session, expected to last up to four hours, a “core bundle” of new evidence was released by MPs as part of their “partygate” inquiry.
It includes evidence from Lee Cain, former director of communications for No 10, about his disapproval of a garden party at Downing Street in May 2020, when strict Covid-19 rules were in place. Mr Cain told the committee he had “strongly advised the event should be cancelled”. Mr Cain said Dominic Cummings, at the time chief adviser to Mr Johnson, “agreed it should not take place”.
“Later in the afternoon we spoke again, Dominic said he had informed the PM but they had argued about numerous staffing issues and he was very clearly very frustrated,” Mr Cain said in his evidence. “It was clear observing all who attended and the layout of the event that this was purely a social function.”
At the time, social gatherings were strictly forbidden under the government’s rules.
The party had been organised by Martin Reynolds, at the time principal private secretary to the prime minister.
Mr Johnson has admitted he attended the gathering in the Downing Street garden on May 20, 2020, staying for about 25 minutes. He was not fined for his attendance but others were.
The Tory MP, who is thought to harbour ambitions of making a return to No 10, was seen leaving his London home shortly after 10am on Wednesday. He declined to answer questions from reporters as he jumped into a waiting car.
‘He allowed the culture to continue’
Referring to gatherings during lockdown, an unnamed No 10 official told the committee that Mr Johnson “often saw and joined these”, either by invite or by chancing upon them “whilst walking up to his flat”. The person said “the route he took down the corridor looks straight into the press room and vestibule so it’s impossible not to see” what was going on.
“He had the opportunity to shut them down but joined in, made speeches, had a drink with staff,” the official continued. “He could have taken the issue up with Martin Reynolds, his principal private secretary, to shut them down. He could see what was happening and allowed the culture to continue.”
The 110-page document released on Wednesday morning included several references to Covid guidance at the time of the alleged rule-breaking parties. This was to cross-reference what Mr Johnson said and did. Screenshots from the UK government’s website were included to show the rules in place during different periods of the pandemic. Photos of the gatherings Mr Johnson attended, and dates, were also included. Extracts of Mr Johnson’s speeches to the public about regulations were also included, as well as transcripts from the House of Commons showing what he had said and when.
In his legal defence dossier, Mr Johnson accepted he misled parliament when he denied breaking rules on social distancing and gatherings during lockdown.
The former prime minister said he was being honest at the time he answered questions about parties during the restrictions but corrected the record as soon as he was able to do so. He made the claim in a 52-page dossier setting out his defence to allegations he lied about the events, which became known as partygate.
He set out his version of what happened during key dates during the Covid-19 pandemic when he and his team “were working day and night” to manage the government’s response.
At a committee on Wednesday, the former Conservative leader is to be grilled by a cross-party group of MPs. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Tuesday he will not tell Conservative MPs how to vote on any potential sanctions.
The hearing, which could heavily influence his political future, is investigating claims he lied to parliament about parties and other gatherings of government and Conservative Party staff held during lockdowns.
Johnson ‘believed actions were within the rules’
He conceded in his evidence to the Privileges Committee that his statements to Parliament “did not turn out to be correct”, but insisted he corrected the record at “the earliest opportunity”.
Mr Johnson accepted that he personally attended five of the events considered by the committee but said he “honestly believed that these events were lawful work gatherings”.
He states that he was relying on information given to him by trusted advisers. Mr Johnson insists it was “unprecedented and absurd” to suggest he was reckless to rely on the assurances of his advisers and criticises the “highly partisan tone and content” in the committee’s damning interim report.
He also says the fact the official photographer was documenting many of the events showed he did not believe there was any wrongdoing and was a measure of how innocent those present considered the events to be.
He says the claim that it should have been “obvious” to him that he was breaking rules was incorrect as others present equally believed they were sticking to guidance.
Referring to No 10 Downing Street, he insists that any lack of social distancing in the “old, cramped London town house with many bottlenecks and small rooms” was not necessarily a breach of guidance.
In the document, Mr Johnson says he would “never dream” of misleading the House of Commons.
“When the statements were made, they were made in good faith and on the basis of what I honestly knew and believed at the time. I did not intentionally or recklessly mislead the House on December 1, 2021, December 8, 2021, or on any other date. I would never have dreamed of doing so.”
He also said there is no “single document that indicates that I received any warning or advice” that any event he attended broke or may have broken the rules or guidance issued by the government.
“In fact, the evidence before the Committee demonstrates that those working at No 10 at the time shared my honest belief that the Rules and Guidance were being followed,” he wrote.
Johnson says it was not obvious rules were broken
He added that the Committee “appears to be mounting a case that, despite the absence of any evidence of warnings or advice, it should have been ‘obvious’ to me that the Rules and Guidance were not being followed, because of the gatherings that I attended.
“It is important to be frank: this amounts to an allegation that I deliberately lied to Parliament.”
He said this allegation extended to “many others” who attended the same gatherings, but that most had given evidence indicating they did not consider their attendance to be against the rules.
Mr Johnson received a fine from police for attending an event described as a birthday party for him.
No cake was eaten, and no one even sang Happy Birthday
He said it “remains unclear” to him — and possibly Prime Minister Rishi Sunak — why they were fined for breaching lockdown laws.
Mr Johnson wrote in his evidence: “I have accepted the conclusion of the police that my participation in the gathering in the Cabinet Room on my birthday, which I knew nothing about in advance, was unlawful.
“However, to this day it remains unclear to me — and I believe the Prime Minister may feel the same — how precisely we committed an offence under the regulations.
“I have never been provided with any rationale by the police, in particular how some individuals that attended did not receive a fixed penalty notice.
“We had a sandwich lunch together and they wished me happy birthday. I was not told in advance that this would happen.
“No cake was eaten, and no one even sang Happy Birthday. The primary topic of conversation was the response to Covid-19.”
He also criticised the scope and “highly partisan” content of the Privileges Committee’s interim report.
“It is important to record my disappointment at the highly partisan tone and content of the fourth report,” he said in his evidence to the committee.
The report suggested breaches of guidance would have been obvious to Mr Johnson, “despite the fact that the committee has not yet heard any evidence from me”, he wrote.
The former prime minister also claimed the committee “has gone significantly beyond its terms of reference” by alleging it had been obvious to him that the guidance was not followed, while previously being concerned with the regulations.
“It is not clear what subsequently transpired to embolden the committee to seek unilaterally to expand its mandate. It is obviously inappropriate, impermissible, and unfair.”
It was “illogical” to suggest there was a cover-up of lockdown-busting gatherings at No 10, Mr Johnson said.
“Some of those who attended the relevant events wished me ill and would denounce me if I concealed the truth from the House. Far from achieving a ‘cover-up’, I would have known that any deception on my part would lead to instant exposure.”
He added that it was “implausible” that pictures would have been taken by the official No 10 photographer if he had known the events were “obviously” against the rules.
He insisted he was never warned that a gathering in the Downing Street garden might breach lockdown rules, and said he wished “in retrospect” he had considered how such events could be perceived.
“It is simply inconceivable that I would have allowed an event to go ahead if I had known that it would breach the rules or guidance,” the former prime minister wrote.
“Of course, I wish, in retrospect, that we had given some thought to how these events could be perceived.
“We should have found a way to make it clearer that these were work events, with the specific purpose of thanking and motivating colleagues for their tireless efforts in fighting Covid-19.
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing.”
If Mr Johnson fails to convince the committee he did not deliberately mislead the Commons, he could be found to have committed a contempt of Parliament.
A suspension of more than 10 days could result in a high-profile by-election in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat.
The full House of Commons will vote on any recommendations.
MPs leading the inquiry said the former prime minister’s evidence submission contains “no new documentary evidence”.
In a statement, they said the initial unredacted evidence package that was handed in on Monday afternoon included a “number of errors and typos”.
A “final corrected version” was not submitted to the Privileges Committee until 8.02am on Tuesday morning, they said — only 30 hours before the hearing is due to start.
“Redactions have been made in the published version to protect the identity of some witnesses, in consultation with Mr Johnson, particularly junior-ranking civil servants,” the MPs said.
“Mr Johnson’s written submission contains no new documentary evidence.”