Johnson misled parliament and had no Partygate 'assurances' from senior officials, MPs find

Civil servants would have struggled to express concerns about the then-PM's behaviour, Privileges Committee says
Boris Johnson. Photo: NurPhoto SRL/Alamy

Boris Johnson’s repeated claims that he had been assured that Covid rule-breaking gatherings in Downing Street had been compliant with the law at the time amount to an unprecedented contempt of parliament, a committee of MPs has found.

A damning report by the Privileges Committee said the former PM had “deliberately” and “repeatedly” misled the House with denials over Partygate – and failed to seek adequate assurances that Covid rules were being followed in No.10 because he had not sought the advice of senior civil servants or government lawyers.

The committee has been probing Johnson's claims to the Commons in December 2021 – in response to unfolding claims of rule-breaking parties at Downing Street – that all rules and guidance had been followed completely in No.10 during the pandemic. The former PM has claimed he had been "repeatedly" assured this was the case.

But the committee said Johnson had based this on comments by two communications advisers who had attended one of the gatherings.

The committee said: “The impression the House would have taken, and we conclude, would have been intended to take, from Johnson’s repeated references to assurances was that those assurances had been overarching and comprehensive, and to be given great weight.

“In fact, as we have seen, the only assurances that we can be certain were given to Johnson were arrived at in haste based on a press 'line to take', were not subject to investigation before either session of PMQs, and did not emanate from senior permanent civil servants or government lawyers but from two media advisers and were based only on their personal recollections.”

Johnson argued to the committee that no-one had raised any concerns with him and that this was proof of his honest belief that the rules and guidance were followed in No.10.

But the committee said this was not true, as Johnson’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, had questioned him directly on whether the guidance had been followed at all times.

It said there was also evidence that other No.10 staff, including some of Johnson’s most senior advisers, also expressed concerns – albeit not directly to the then-PM.

The committee also pointed to comments from officials which suggested it should have been clear to everyone working in No.10 that the rules and guidance were not being followed.

A junior official told the committee: “No.10, despite setting the rules to the country, was slow to enforce any rules in the building. The press office Wine Time Fridays continued throughout, social distancing was not enforced […] This was all part of a wider culture of not adhering to any rules. No.10 was like an island oasis of normality.”

The MPs said the 126 fines issued by the Metropolitan Police to 83 attendees at events in No.10 suggested Johnson oversaw “a culture of laxity” towards the Covid rules and guidance that swept civil servants along.

The committee said it “would have been difficult, if not impossible, for many staff members, particularly junior ones, to express concerns about the prime minister’s behaviour or the behaviour of others in No.10 as this would have been potentially career-damaging criticism of senior staff or the head of government.”

This was backed up by comments from another Downing Street official to the committee, who stated: “I was following a workplace culture. Senior people led it. I look back and wouldn’t do it now. I did it because senior people did it.”

The report also revealed Johnson had backtracked on comments made to the committee in March that Mark Sedwill’s resignation as cabinet secretary was partly the reason for a lockdown-busting garden party at No.10 in May 2020.

The report said some of Johnson's denials and explanations “were so disingenuous that they were by their very nature deliberate attempts to mislead”.

The committee concluded that it was “highly unlikely on the balance of probabilities” that Johnson could have genuinely believed at the times of his statements to the House that the rules or guidance were being complied with given his own attendance of events – which led to a FPN – and his “familiarity with the gules and guidance as their most prominent public promoter”.

The MPs said it was just as unlikely that he could have continued to believe this when giving evidence to the committee. They concluded that he must have "deliberately misled" both the House and the committee.

The report makes Johnson the first UK prime minister to have been found to have deliberately misled parliament.

The committee said it would have recommended a 90-day suspension from the House for repeated contempt and for seeking to undermine the parliamentary process if Johnson had not already resigned as an MP. As well as misleading the House and the committee, it said he had breached confidentiality requirements and undermined the democratic process of the House when he criticised the draft findings of the committee's report last week.

It also accused him of being complicit in a campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation of the committee and recommended he not be granted a former member’s pass, which gives ex-MPs easy access to parliament.

Responding to the report, Johnson accused MPs of conducting a "charade" and reaching a "deranged conclusion" that was "contradicted by the facts".

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