No 10 worried of ‘gaping hole’ in Johnson’s account – what we learned from the Partygate report

The interim report by the House of Commons privileges committee contains more damning evidence about Boris Johnson’s role in “Partygate” than the original Sue Gray inquiry.

Jane Merrick

Here are five things we have learned from the MPs’ report:

Senior No 10 staff were worried about gatherings in Downing Street eight months before the ‘Partygate’ story broke

Written evidence to the committee, submitted only this Wednesday, contains the most damning evidence on “Partygate” against Mr Johnson yet – in a WhatsApp message handed over by an official, who may or may not still work in No 10.

On 24 April 2021, several months before the Daily Mirror broke its story about lockdown-breaking parties in No 10, a No 10 official wrote: “[another unnamed No 10 official]’s worried about leaks of PM having a piss up and to be fair I don’t think it’s unwarranted”.

This shows that not only were parties taking place inside Downing Street, but suggests that senior staff knew that they were against covid rules.

No 10 staff struggled to come up with a ‘line to take’ on ‘Partygate’

When the Mirror broke the “Partygate” story, on 30 November 2021, Mr Johnson’s then director of communications Jack Doyle wrote: “Can you pull together our best possible defence on this one. I don’t know what we say about the flat.”

An unnamed No 10 official replied: “Don’t we just do a generic line and not get into whether there was a drinks thing or not”

Another No 10 official wrote: “‘Covid rules have been followed at all times’ or something”.

Mr Doyle replied: “I think we have to say something as robust as we can manage but see what you think.”

No 10 staff thought there was a ‘gaping hole’ in Mr Johnson’s denials about ‘Partygate’

On 25 January 2022, when the story broke that the then PM attended a birthday celebration in the Cabinet room in June 2020, No 10 officials could not come up with a reason as to why it was within the rules.

WhatsApp messages provided to the committee – again submitted this week – reveal that Mr Doyle had said: “Haven’t heard any explanations of how it’s in the rules.”

A No 10 official replied: “I’m trying to do some Q & A, it’s not going well.”

Mr Doyle said: “I’m struggling to come up with a way this one is in the rules in my head”

When a No 10 official suggested they could argue the meeting was “reasonably necessary for work purposes’”, Mr Doyle replied: “Not sure that one works does it. Also blows another great gaping hole in the PM’s account doesn’t it?”

At the time, Mr Johnson had repeated his line that he had been “repeatedly assured that no rules were broken”. By then, Whitehall investigator Sue Gray was conducting her inquiry into “Partygate”. MPs on the Privileges Committee point out that, when the birthday party story broke, Mr Johnson did not come to the House of Commons “at the earliest opportunity” – under the rules – to correct the record about what he knew. He waited until April 2022, after he was fined over the birthday gathering.

The committee believes Mr Johnson ‘may have’ misled the House – the question is whether it was intentional or not

The MPs cite several ways in which they believe the ex-prime minister misled the House, when he gave statements at PMQs on 1 and 8 December 2021 saying there had been no rules or guidance had been broken.

Firstly, they say the Metropolitan Police Service and Ms Gray have since established that lockdown breaches took place in No 10.

Secondly, because Mr Johnson “failed to tell the House about his own knowledge of the gatherings where the rules or guidance had been broken. That is because there is evidence that he attended them” – including photographic evidence.

Thirdly, because Mr Johnson told parliament he had been advised by his staff that no rules were broken – but the committee has witness statements from No 10 officials saying they did not offer this advice. The only evidence that he was advised it was within the rules was from a purported statement by Mr Doyle as a “line to take”, the committee’s report says.

Fourthly, the committee says that while Mr Johnson was telling Parliament that there needed to be an investigation by Ms Gray into whether rules had been broken, “he appears to have had personal knowledge that he did not reveal” about parties in No 10.

The committee believes Mr Johnson and his aides dragged their feet in providing evidence to them

The report says that Mr Johnson told the committee he held “no relevant material” after three requests for evidence.

The committee issued a public call for evidence on 30 June 2022, followed by two private requests to the then prime minister in the following month.

On 12 August, Mr Johnson replied and “stated that, in relation to the committee’s request for documents held in his personal possession, he held no relevant material”.

He “has not provided us with a written submission,” the report said.

On 24 August, the Government – when Mr Johnson was still in Downing Street – provided documents which were “so heavily redacted as to render them devoid of any evidential value”, the committee said, adding: “Some material had been redacted even though it was already in the public domain.”

It was not until 18 November, when Rishi Sunak had become Prime Minister, that the Cabinet Office handed over “unredacted disclosure of all relevant material”.

And on 19 January this year, in response to a direct and specific request by the committee for all relevant WhatsApp messages, “Mr Johnson’s solicitors supplied us with 46 WhatsApp messages between Mr Johnson and five other individuals”.

Multi-million-pound road improvements pave way for 1,000-job new East Devon business park

Work has finished on a multi-million-pound road scheme that will pave the way to a 1,000-job new East Devon business park. 

The £4.5million enhancement scheme at Long Lane, near Exeter Airport, has taken two years and will ‘unlock’ development of the mooted 19-acre ‘Power Park’.

It will form part of the Exeter and East Devon Enterprise Zone. 

Work at Long Lane – including a new bus loop and improved provision for pedestrians and cyclists – was completed on February 23.

East Devon District Council (EDDC) says the project will boost the local economy ‘through provision of new jobs and opportunities for clean and inclusive growth’.

The authority added that the scheme will improve access to Exeter Airport, Exeter College’s Future Skills Centre, and Exeter Aerospace maintenance hangars.

It will also help to enable the construction of the forthcoming France-Aldernay-Britain interconnector project.

EDDC leader Councillor Paul Arnott said: “I’m delighted to see completion of this important work which will help bring forward a new site and new jobs to our Enterprise Zone.

“The focus on sustainable transport with improved pedestrian, cycling and bus links all contribute to our clean growth vision for the area and helps us to meet our 2040 carbon neutral target to tackle climate change.

“It is fantastic news for local, young people who have better access to the Future Skills Centre, which in turn will improve the ability to access highly-skilled job opportunities.”

Cllr Rufus Gilbert, Devon County Council cabinet member for economic recovery and skills, added:

“This has been a truly collaborative effort…to deliver such a transformational road scheme, which will be the catalyst for unlocking around 1,000 jobs at Power Park.

“The development of this infrastructure is a real boost for all modes of transport as it will deliver better walking and cycling links, as well as a 20-minute frequency bus service extending to the Future Skills Centre, Exeter Airport Business Park, the Hampton by Hilton hotel and the future business park.”

Karl Tucker, who chairs of the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership, said:

“Our area’s Enterprise Zones are a key part of the ongoing work to create new and better paid jobs for the people who live here.

“It is a fantastic step in the area’s clean growth journey.”

Exeter College chief executive John Laramy added: “The improvements to Long Lane are nothing short of transformational for that area.  The enhancement will improve access, transport links and opportunities, not just for college students and apprentices, but for businesses and stakeholders that use and benefit from the Future Skills Centre.”

Exeter Airport managing director Stephen Wiltshire said:

“This scheme is vital to supporting better connectivity to the airport, helping to deliver growth and prosperity to the regional economy.”

EDDC agreed in January 2022 to increase its investment in the road scheme from £3.7million to £4.51million so it could be completed.

Cash borrowed for the project will be recouped from future ring-fenced business rate income from the Enterprise Zone sites.

Paul Arnott: ‘The current Tories nationally and locally are a risk to democracy’

I wonder how many people talking with friends and family hesitate for a second before putting a date on something. The Covid years, quite apart from being tragically fatal for many in East Devon, and the cause of awful pain for their families, seem to have been collectively somewhat forgotten, a fracture in the time continuum.

Last weekend, I was in London for the first time in a while and stayed at one of my children’s flats. I said how lovely it was to be there after more than a year and she reminded me that I last slept there in March 2020 the week before the first lockdowns began. Indeed, both trips were to see my ailing football team, Charlton, and in 2020 they were a whole division higher.

When it comes to being leader of EDDC, however, I can just about recall things to the day. I well remember us being asked at that time to underwrite what became about £1.3 million to keep our LED leisure service afloat. Chancellor Sunak implied that he’d cover all such losses. In the end he decided to cover about 85% of the losses of “insourced” leisure operations, while the “outsourced ones” – such as the one we were bequeathed by the East Devon Tories who lost the council 2019 – were sent cheques for a tiny fraction.

Therefore, we have had to spend the last three years asking the government to “level up” this inequality. We fought hard to make sure that the massive hole in the council’s finances didn’t come at the loss of any services, but it’s been a struggle. Perhaps with district elections around the corner, Chancellor Hunt will be persuaded by Simon Jupp MP to settle his bill nearly a third of a decade late. Mr Jupp had his photo taken at one of our pools last week, so let’s hope so. Better late than never.

I always worry at this point that someone will fling their paper/phone/laptop across the room saying, “he’s having a go at the Conservatives again”. My standard response is that I have always had Conservative friends, but that nationally and locally the current batch are a risk to democracy.

I am not alone in this. Last week, one of those Conservatives who I would consider a warm acquaintance at the least, Cllr Mike Howe, had enough. I was aware of his disappointment in his party for many years, but he’d courageously gone by the maxim of trying to fix it from the inside. I respect that. Last Tory week’s display at one of our full council meetings was the last straw.

Mike has been quoted as follows: “I’ve just had enough, and last night’s full council just pushed me over the edge. I need to do what I can for my ward and the district as a whole. And I feel the best place to do that is not the Conservative party locally. I think the party was wrong from start to finish last night, and it just gets to the point where you can’t defend the indefensible.”

Mike hasn’t “defected” or sought any gain out of this; he’s just done the right thing and will be an independent for the rest of his term.

Please remember this as you consider your votes for District in a couple of months’ time. My administration which is a cordial blend of Independent councillors, LibDems and Greens, has been exactly the kind of local government from the centre, without doctrine, which I believe the country wants everywhere. We’d like to do it build on the work after May if you’d be kind enough to vote for it.

Meanwhile, local Cons will be leafletting you to “defend the indefensible”. Prepare for some inversions of the truth ahead.