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 inews.co.uk
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”.