Simon McDonald: Why I had to call out Boris Johnson’s untruths about Christopher Pincher

Former Foreign and Commonwealth Office permanent under-secretary explains the background to his decision to set the record straight, prompting events that led to the PM’s resignation
Simon McDonald. Photo: Parliament / CC BY 3.0

By Lord Simon McDonald

12 Jul 2022

On 30 June, Christopher Pincher stepped down as deputy chief whip, having “embarrassed himself and others” at the Carlton Club.

Over the next three days, I watched with incredulity as No.10 reacted inadequately to claims the prime minister had known of earlier allegations against Mr Pincher before appointing him to the Whips’ Office.

My week began on Sunday 3 July, when I asked Olivia (my wife) whether I should intervene. We had just watched Thérèse Coffey uncomfortably tell Sophie Raworth that “to the best of [her] knowledge” the prime minister had not been aware of specific allegations against Mr Pincher. I knew that wasn’t the case.

I contacted people to try to get No.10 comms to correct its line-to-take. I also re-checked the facts with people who had worked with me in the summer of 2019. They confirmed everything as I had remembered it; not, surprising really, given that details of the key meeting are seared in my memory.

Shortly after Mr Pincher was appointed minister in the Foreign Office, a group of colleagues came to see me to complain about his behaviour. Immediately afterwards, I consulted the Cabinet Office and opened a formal investigation.

The complaint of inappropriate behaviour was confirmed. I went to see Mr Pincher to explain the consequences. He agreed to apologise to those affected and undertook not to repeat the behaviour. He claimed to be mortified that anyone could misinterpret his actions so horribly, and that nothing like this had ever happened before. It was the most awkward meeting I had as permanent under-secretary.

Most days at 6pm, I phone my widowed mother. On 4 July the call to my mum wouldn’t connect. Instead, I returned the call of a BBC journalist, who had told me earlier in the day she had unearthed a Foreign Office angle to the Pincher story.

We agreed the rules of engagement: I would verify or correct the account she’d been given but not provide new information; and I’d let her know if our conversation prompted me to speak publicly.

On the train afterwards, I read with disbelief No.10’s latest version of what the PM had known and when. I began to write a letter to the parliamentary commissioner for standards. At home, I showed the draft to Olivia. She reluctantly agreed I should go public. I texted the BBC journalist, suggesting she look at my Twitter account at 7.30am.

Olivia and I turned in after midnight. I woke up at 6am, having dreamt the wording of the tweet: “No.10 keep changing their story and are still not telling the truth”. I made final changes to the letter and Olivia made a tweet-able screenshot (she has a monopoly on tech expertise in our marriage).

I emailed the commissioner at 7.25am and tweeted the letter at 7.30am. Within seconds, my phone began ringing, I ignored unfamiliar numbers. But then a familiar name from R4 Today flashed onto the screen; would I appear at 8.20am? Yes.

At 7.40am, our eldest son burst in, “What have you done, dad?” The three of us listened to Dominic Raab tell Justin Webb it was factually incorrect to say the PM knew of a formal investigation into Pincher, to be confronted by my letter. The DPM abruptly changed tack: “That’s news to me”.

Listening to Raab, I missed Today’s repeated efforts to get back in touch to move the time of my interview to 8.10. They succeeded at 8.08 and I remained on the line. I answered Justin Webb’s questions. My only agenda was to persuade No.10 to come clean about the existence of a formal investigation and the PM’s knowledge of that investigation. By 8.16am, it was over.

At this point the interesting part of my week ended. On the other hand, the interesting part of some other people’s week was just beginning.

Simon McDonald, Lord McDonald of Salford, was permanent under-secretary and head of the Diplomatic Service at the FCO from 2015 to 2020. He joined the Diplomatic Service in 1982 and was British ambassador to Berlin from 2010 to 2015. He currently sits as a crossbench peer in the House of Lords.

His reflections on the contribution he made to last weeks tumultuous events, which eventually forced Boris Johnson to commit to standing down as PM, were originally published by Civil Service World's sister title Politics Home

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