Boris Johnson Believed He Was "Entitled" To Trust Advice That Lockdown Parties Didn't Break Rules
Boris Johnson giving evidence to the privileges committee (Alamy)
7 min read
Boris Johnson has told the privileges committee that he was “fully entitled” to rely on what his senior advisers told him over whether lockdown gatherings in Downing Street broke rules.
The former prime minister is facing an interrogation by the committee into whether he misled Parliament over partygate when he said that no rules and guidance had been broken, which has subsequently been proven not to be the case.
In his opening remarks during Wednesday’s hearing, which is anticipated to continue for several hours, Johnson insisted that “hand on heart” he did not lie to the House.
“When those statements were made they were made in good faith and on the basis of what I honestly knew and believed at the time,” he explained.
The committee’s investigation is concerned with a number of events when lockdown restrictions were in place, including Johnson’s birthday gathering, leaving celebrations in November 2020 and January 2021, and the ‘bring your own booze’ gathering in the Downing Street garden in May 2020.
Johnson thanked the committee for their work on the investigation, but claimed that they have "found nothing to show that I was warned in advance to show that events in No 10 were illegal".
He added: "In fact nothing to show that anyone raised anxieties with me about any event whether before or after it had taken place. If there had been such anxiety about a rule-breaking event in No 10, it unquestionably would have been escalated to me."
While Johnson now accepts that the events were not within the guidance, his defence largely hinges on the argument that at the time, he believed they did pass the test of being necessary for work purposes because they boosted staff morale and were therefore essential to overall efforts in tackling the pandemic.
He insists that this is in line with advice he was given by his closest aides, justifying his statement to the Commons that no rules or guidance had been broken.
Johnson said he was "dealing with the emergence of the Omicron variant, and the growing clamour for restrictions on another Christmas" on the night of 30 December 2021 before the first partygate story appeared on the front page of the Daily Mirror. The following day, 1 December, he told Prime Minister's Questions that "all guidance was followed completely in Number 10".
"I could not drop what was doing, get up and go and institute a personal investigation into what sounded like a Daily Mirror try-on about an event that was now almost a year old," he explained at today's hearing.
"I had to rely on and was fully entitled to rely on what I was told by my senior trusted advisers. Government would be paralysed if ministers were not able to do so."
Johnson said that 20 May 2020 – the day of the 'bring your own booze' gathering – was also a "very difficult day", and insisted that people who assumed staff were "partying" in lockdown "simply do not know what they are talking about".
"People who say that that event was a purely social gathering are quite wrong.
"My purpose there was to thank staff, to motivate them in what had been a very difficult time and what was also a very difficult day in which the Cabinet Secretary had just resigned," he added.
In terms of the advice he received, one member of the committee asked Johnson why he had not taken "proper advice" ahead of the first prime minister's questions session after the story broke, a suggestion Johnson called "complete nonsense."
"Nobody raised with me or had any concern before I stood up on December 1 about those events," Johnson said.
"This is complete nonsense. Complete nonsense. I asked the relevant people. And they were senior people, they'd been working very hard," he added.
The definition of whether events were within the guidance or within the rules - and the understanding of the difference - was a point of regular back and forth between Johnson and the committee members.
Legal rules could be used as the basis for issuing fines if they were broken, guidance such as two metre social distancing in the workplace, should have been followed “wherever possible”.
For example, Johnson made reference to the birthday event for which he was fined as not occurring to him as one “that was against either the rules or the guidance” and then at another point suggested that the “confines” of Downing Street made it “impossible” to socially distance at all times.
Committee chair Harriet Harman told the hearing that members will “leave our party interests at the door”, but she was criticised by Johnson, who accused her of making comments in the past about the scandal which “are plainly wrong and prejudicial”.
In his written evidence released earlier this week, Johnson accused the committee of seven MPs, including four Tories, of having a “highly partisan tone”. He followed that on Wednesday afternoon, by saying to the senior Labour MP: “"I'm going to put your earlier remarks down to the general cut and thrust of politics and trust in what you have stressed at the outset, the impartiality that the committee insists upon and then sits upon.”
He added: "It is your job and I want to help you to understand why I said what I said to Parliament and whether I deliberately set out to deceive. And I emphatically did not."
Opening the hearing today, Harman said: “The political balance on this committee reflects the political balance in the house, which is why the committee comprises four Conservatives and three opposition MPs, including two from Labour and one from the SNP.
“Having said that, we leave our party interests at the door of the committee room and conduct our work in the interests of the house.
“That is what we're doing in this inquiry and what we will continue to do.”
Harman had told the hearing that the committee needs to “understand why Mr Johnson said to Parliament that no rules or guidance were broken in No 10 when we have evidence that he knew what the rules and guidance were, and that he was present at gatherings where those rules and guidance were breached.”
Outlining the scope of the session at the start of the hearing, Harman played clips of Johnson telling the House of Commons that rules were not broken. She also addressed prior criticism from Johnson that the committee had taken a "highly partisan tone”.
“The political balance on this committee reflects the political balance in the House, which is why the committee comprises four conservatives and three opposition MPs, including two from Labour and one from the SNP," the chair said.
She said they will be looking at both relevant rules and guidance from the time of the different events as well as “Mr Johnson’s knowledge of those rules and guidance”.
Evidence that has been collected by the committee includes testimony from people who were Downing Street staff at the time of the events in 2020 and 2021, Johnson's diaries, emails, and photographs of the gatherings, including some taken by the official No 10 photographer.
In his own submission of written evidence, published on Tuesday, Johnson said he takes “full responsibility for everything that took place” in No 10 while he was in office, and admitted he attended five of the gatherings the committee is investigating.
The committee will now consider what they heard from Johnson today, as well as the other evidence they have received, before they reach a conclusion on their recommendations.
Towards the end of the hearing, Johnson was asked whether he would accept the committee was "fair" and not a "witch-hunt" , something he appeared to resist accepting, as he said that he would "wait to see" how the members would proceed with the evidence they have.
If the crossparty committee find that Johnson knowingly misled the House of Commons, it is likely that they will recommend a punishment.
All MPs will then go to a vote on whether they agree with the committee’s findings, and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has indicated that this is likely to be a free vote, meaning MPs will not be whipped.
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