Everything You Need To Know About Boris Johnson's Privileges Committee Showdown
Boris Johnson has handed in his written submission ahead of his appearance before the privileges committee. (Alamy)
9 min read
Boris Johnson faced the privileges committee on Wednesday in a long-awaited session to interrogate what he knew about lockdown parties in Downing Street and to determine whether he knowingly or recklessly misled parliament when he was prime minister.
Johnson gave his oral evidence on Wednesday, after submitting his written evidence on Tuesday, defending himself against claims he knowingly or reckessly misled parliament.
Prior to the release of the written evidence, Johnson's allies had widely briefed that the “bombshell dossier” of information would vindicate the former prime minister - despite the committee subsequently stating it contained no new evidence.
The committee released its own report on their investigation earlier this month outlining their assessment of evidence and testimony relating to whether Johnson knowingly or recklessly misled parliament when he assured MPs he believed no rulebreaking parties were not held in Downing Street during lockdown.
Appearing before the committee on Wednesday, Johnson admitted he did mislead the House of Commons when he said rules and guidance were followed in Number 10 – but insisted he was unaware of rulebreaking when he made the statements to the House on the issue.
It came after his written submission on Tuesday where he admitted he attended five of the gatherings the committee is investigating and took “full responsibility for everything that took place” in No 10 during his premiership.
"It is of course true that my statements to parliament that the rules and guidance had been followed at all times did not turn out to be correct, and I take this opportunity to apologise to the House for that," said Johnson.
"That is clear from the findings in the Sue Gray report, and the result of the Metropolitan Police investigation, which I accept."
The most challenging aspects of the committee's work for the ex-prime minister will now be its assertions that, following their investigation, "evidence strongly suggests that breaches of guidance would have been obvious to Mr Johnson at the time he was at the gatherings".
Here's some of the key elements of his defence.
Which events is the committee concerned with?
What Johnson knew about rulebreaking in No 10 and the Cabinet Office during lockdown relates to the following events: a gathering in the No 10 garden on 20 May 2020; Johnson’s birthday gathering on 19 June 2020 (the one where he was "ambushed by cake"); leaving celebrations on 13 November 2020, 27 November 2020 and 14 January 2021, and 'cheese and wine' Friday night press office gatherings.
There was also a Christmas gathering on 18 December 2020, however Johnson was not in attendance.
Johnson claims he didn't realise events broke the rules
The overarching theme of Johnson’s defence for misleading parliament is that he did not know he was breaking the rules.
On his birthday gathering on 19 June 2020, for example – the only event for which he received a fixed penalty notice from the Metropolitan police – Johnson said “to this day it remains unclear” to him as to why he was fined.
“I believe the Prime Minister may feel the same – how precisely we committed an offence under the regulations,” said Johnson in his written evidence submitted on Tuesday.
“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.”
He added: “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.”
Despite conceding that the press office – where rule breaking events are known to have taken place – was within sight of the journey he would make up to his flat, as pointed out by the privileges committee, Johnson has claimed he “cannot recall” specific occasions where he saw groups of people gathering.
“For the avoidance of any doubt, I accept that I could see into the press office on my way to the flat, although my attention is often elsewhere when I am returning to the flat,” said Johnson in his written evidence.
“Although I cannot recall any specific occasions, I may well have seen groups of people in the press office when going up to my flat. There would be nothing unusual or untoward about that.
“They were consistently working late during the Covid-19 pandemic and regularly would meet on Friday evenings to discuss and debrief the events of the week, where wine would be available.”
Johnson also relies on the existence of photos of gatherings as evidence that he did not know rules were being broken – particularly for the leaving event for outgoing director of communications, Lee Cain on 13 November 2020.
"The committee seeks to rely on photographs of the events," said Johnson.
"However, those photographs support the fact that this was not 'obvious'. The photographs were not covertly taken. They were taken by the official No 10 photographer.
"Any suggestion that we would have held events which were 'obviously' contrary to the Rules and Guidance, and then allowed those events to be captured by the official photographer, is inherently implausible."
When pressed by the privileges committee on whether leaving drinks, including where alcohol was present, could be classed as essential for work purposes during that period in lockdown, Johnson said: "I will believe till the day I die, that it was my job to thank staff for what they had done."
He further justified the presence of alcohol at gatherings he believed to be essential: "It is customary to say farewell to people in this country with a toast."
He has sought to undermine the committee, claiming the process isn’t fair
Johnson has also claimed that the committee has “gone significantly beyond its terms of reference” in its investigation, accussing the committee of having a “highly partisan tone” – despite it having a Tory majority.
When asked by committee on Wednesday whether he would use the language some of his sympathisers have in accusing the committee of being a "kangaroo court", Johnson hinted he would reserve judgement until the committee's conclusion had been reached.
"I will wait to see how you proceed with the evidence that you have," he said.
Johnson has also called on the committee to ignore evidence provided by his former aide Dominic Cummings suggesting Johnson knew rules were being broken, citing the enmity that has developed between the pair since Cummings resigned in 2021.
“It is no secret that Dominic Cummings bears an animus towards me, having publicly stated on multiple occasions that he wanted to do everything that he could to remove me 'from power',” said Johnson in his written evidence.
As well as testimony from Downing Street staff and a tour of No 10, evidence gathered by the committee includes Johnson’s official diaries of appointments and visits, relevant emails between officials, and photographs of gatherings in Downing Street.
Johnson claims he was given the wrong information by those around him
Another core element of Johnson’s defence has been claiming his advisers gave him incorrect information about the nature of the gatherings on Downing Street – suggesting he was repeatedly assured that rules were followed at all times.
“When I spoke in Parliament on 1 and 8 December 2021, I did not believe that any of the events that I had personally attended, nor the 18 December 2020 event which I was asked about (but did not attend), were in breach of the Rules or the Guidance,” said Johnson in his written evidence.
“On the basis of my attendance, or, for the 18 December 2020 event, on the basis of assurances that I received from those with direct knowledge, I honestly believed that these events were lawful work gatherings.
“In relation to the events that I attended, although full social distancing was not always possible, I considered that this was acceptable under the guidance..."
These remarks came after evidence provided to the privileges committee revealed advisers admitted to each other at various points they were unsure of whether gatherings had followed the rules.
For example, in a WhatsApp regarding the birthday gathering of 19 June 2020 Johnson's director of communications said: “Haven’t heard any explanation of how it’s in the rules.”
Other evidence released shows that Simon Case, cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, told the privileges committee that he did not provide Johnson with assurances that rules or guidance were followed "at all times" - and said he was not aware of anyone giving Johnson those assurances.
During Johnson's appearance before the committtee senior Tory MP and committee member, Sir Bernard Jenkins, told the ex-prime minister it appeared he "did not take proper advice” on whether parties followed rules – because he chose to seek assurances from political advisers rather than professional civil servants.
How is this is different to the Sue Gray report?
The Sue Gray report was commissioned to look into the extent to which rules were broken in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office during lockdown, as well as including individuals beyond the prime minister.
However, the privileges committee is focusing on the former prime minister’s conduct specifically and whether he intentionally or recklessly misled the House of Commons about how much he knew about Partygate when he told MPs on the record that rules had been followed.
They are not concerned with whether he broke the rules, which has been concluded elsewhere, but instead if he lied about knowing whether he had done so.
What happens next?
If Johnson is found by the crossparty committee of MPs to have knowingly misled the House of Commons, it is likely the committee will recommend what kind of punishment Johnson should face.
All MPs will then vote on whether they agree with the committees findings and recommended sanctions, with Sunak indicating it is likely to be a free vote – as is normally the case with these matters.
Depending on the sanction agreed, a recall petition could be called and he could lose his parliamentary seat.
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