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Privileges Committee Believes Boris Johnson May Have Misled House On Partygate

Boris Johnson. (Alamy)

6 min read

The privileges committee has summoned Boris Johnson to give evidence on whether he misled parliament over what he knew about lockdown parties in Downing Street following the release of their report into what issues will be raised with the former prime minister.

Johnson has accepted an invitation from the cross party committee of MPs – which will comprise of four Conservatives, two Labour, and one SNP – for the week commencing 20 March 2023.

The date and time of the meeting is yet to be announced, and Johnson has been invited to provide written evidence – which will be published should he choose to do.

Likely one of the most challenging aspects of the report for Johnson will be the committee's belief that it would have been "obvious" to the prime minister at the time that Covid rules were not being followed in No 10. 

"Evidence strongly suggests that breaches of guidance would have been obvious to Mr Johnson at the time he was at the gatherings," the committee said.

13 November 2020 gathering
13 November 2020 gathering. (Source: Cabinet Office)

The House of Commons unanimously instructed the committee to launch an inquiry into what he knew about rule breaking parties on Downing Street during lockdown months before he resigned as prime minister last year.

Among the areas the inquiry is exploring is what Johnson told MPs in the House of Commons and if it was misleading, how quickly any misleading statements were corrected, whether the House was misled, and whether it constitute contempt of the House.

In the report, the committee state: “If a statement was misleading, we will consider whether that was inadvertent, reckless or intentional.

"If we conclude it was in any way reckless or intentional we will consider what sanction to recommend to the House. It will be for the House to decide whether to accept or reject our conclusions and recommendations.”

The committee also says the report was delayed due “a reluctance on the part of the Government to provide unredacted evidence”.

Text exchanges submitted to the inquiry as evidence appear to show those who were advising Johnson at the time struggling to come up with reasons to justify the argument he wasn't aware of lockdown rules being broken. 

A WhatsApp message to a Number 10 official sent by then director of communcations on 25 January 2022, concerning a gathering on 10 June 2020, said: “Haven’t heard any explanation of how it’s in the rules”.

19 June 2020 gathering
19 June 2020 gathering (Source: Cabinet Office)

In another WhatsApp message on 25 January 2022 concerning another gathering on 19 June 2020, the director of communcations said: “I’m struggling to come up with a way this one is in the rules in my head”.

After being told they could suggest the event was "reasonably necessary for work purposes", they replied: “not sure that one works does it. Also blows another great gaping hole in the PM’s account doesn’t it?”

Other messages include an exchange from 28 April 2021, in which a Number 10 officials said: "[No. 10 official]’s worried about leaks of PM having a piss up and to be fair I don’t think it’s unwarranted”.

However, in a statement following the release of today's report, Johnson has said "it is clear" that he has "not committed any contempt of parliament" - claiming he has been "vindicated".

"There is no evidence in the report that I knowingly or recklessly misled parliament, or that I failed to update parliament in a timely manner," said Johnson.

"Nor is there any evidence in the report that I was aware that any events taking place in No 10 or the Cabinet Office were in breach of the rules or the guidance."

But Labour has described the report as "absolutely damning".

"The evidence in this report is absolutely damning on the conduct of Boris Johnson, not just in the crime but the cover up," said deputy Labour leader, Angela Rayner

14 January gathering 2021. (Source: Cabinet Office)

"All the while, Rishi Sunak sat on his hands, living and working next door but doing nothing to end the rule breaking."

She added: "If Rishi Sunak is to meet his promise of integrity and accountability, he must stop propping up his disgraced prime minister and his legal defence fund, fully endorse the Committee's recommendations and make clear that if Boris Johnson is found to have repeatedly misled Parliament his career is over."

The report follows a growing number of Tory MPs expressing outrage at the departure of senior civil servant Sue Gray – who led a separate investigation into Partygate – to join the Labour party.

Johnson, who was the person who appointed Gray to investigate Partygate, has said it is "surreal" the committee has referred to her findings in the report. 

"I note that the committee has emphasised their wish to be fair," Johnson said in his statement today. 

"They have made reference on no fewer than 26 occasions to a personage they bashfully describe as 'the second permanent secretary to the Cabinet Office.' That is of course, Sue Gray.

"So it is surreal to discover that the committee proposes to rely on evidence culled and orchestrated by Sue Gray, who has just been appointed chief of staff to the leader of the Labour party."

However, in a statement responding to claims it had relied on Gray's finding, the committee said: "The committee’s report is not based on the Sue Gray report.

"The committee’s report is based on evidence in the form of: 

  • material supplied by the Government to the Committee in November, including communications such as Whatsapps, emails, and photographs from the official Downing Street photographer 
  • evidence from witnesses who were present either at the time of the gatherings or at the time of preparation for Boris Johnson’s statements to Parliament. Sue Gray was present at neither and is not one of those witnesses.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has been a staunch Johnson ally and served in his cabinet, has suggested Gray's appointment in the Labour party casts doubt on the impartiality of civil servants.

"So much for an impartial Civil Service, the Gray report now looks like a left wing stitch up against a Tory Prime Minister," said Rees-Mogg. 

However, Labour has defended Gray’s record – with shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell tell Good Morning Britain she is a “incredibly professional incredibly professional, impartial and generous person who was really good at her job".

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