Johnson says officials’ advice made him mislead MPs over Partygate gatherings

Ex-PM denies misleading parliament "recklessly or intentionally" over rule-breaking events
Boris Johnson pictured in London this month. Photo: REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/Alamy Stock Photo

By Jim Dunton

21 Mar 2023

Boris Johnson has acknowledged he misled MPs with his statements about Covid-19 rule-breaking events that took place at No.10 Downing Street and other parts of the government estate – blaming officials for the stance he took on events he attended. But the former prime minister denies that he misled MPs “intentionally or recklessly”.

Johnson’s admission and justification come in a 52-page submission to parliament’s Privileges Committee, ahead of tomorrow’s evidence session at which he will be grilled about his conduct in the Partygate scandal.

The document names cabinet secretary Simon Case and former No.10 communications chief Jack Doyle among those who gave assurances that restrictions designed to stop the spread of coronavirus were being followed.

Some names have been redacted from the finalised version of the document – which the Privileges Committee said had been submitted yesterday afternoon in unredacted form, and with “a number of errors and typos”.

Johnson was last year given a fixed-penalty notice by the Metropolitan Police for attending one restrictions-busting event and was pictured at other get-togethers covered in Sue Gray’s report. Then-chancellor Rishi Sunak was also fined.

Johnson said in his submission that earlier assurances he gave to MPs in parliament that no rules had been broken were “made in good faith” and reflected what he “honestly believed at the time”.

“I did not intentionally or recklessly mislead the House on 1 December 2021, 8 December 2021, or on any other date,” he said. “I would never have dreamed of doing so.”

Johnson said it was clear from the committee’s investigations that there was no evidence supporting any allegation that he intentionally or recklessly misled the House – other than from his former chief adviser Dominic Cummings.

Johnson described Cummings as “discredited” and said his assertions were “not supported by any documentation”.

“There is not a single document that indicates that I received any warning or advice that any event broke or may have broken the rules or guidance,” Johnson said. “In fact, the evidence before the committee demonstrates that those working at No. 10 at the time shared my honest belief that the rules and guidance were being followed.”

Johnson’s submission quotes from evidence to the Privileges Committee from MP Sarah Dines about Simon Case. She said she was “about 90% sure” that the cabinet secretary had been among a group of civil servants who assured Johnson that Covid rules were being followed when he asked during a meeting she attended on a date she could not remember.

It also quotes evidence from Johnson's former principal private secretary Martin Reynolds. He told the committee that similar assurances had been given “by some of the senior communications team staff”, including Jack Doyle, when Johnson asked whether rules were being followed at another event.

Johnson said it would be “absurd” to accuse him of being reckless for relying on assurances from trusted advisers.

“I was the prime minister of the country, working day and night to manage the government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said. “It was self-evidently reasonable for me to rely on assurances that I received from my advisers.”

“The suggestion to the contrary would have profound and debilitating implications for the future of debate in the House, and for the ability of ministers to rely on the advice of their officials when answering questions in parliament.”

Johnson, himself once a boundary-pushing journalist, said photographs from events subsequently found to be breaches of the rules had been “weaponised by the media”.

He said the images provided “further support” that the Partygate events he attended were “in no sense” breaches of the rules that should have been “obvious” to anyone.

“Four of the five photographs relied upon by the committee are photographs from the official No.10 photographer,” he said.

“A suggestion that we would have held events which were ‘obviously’ contrary to the rules and guidance, and allowed those events to be immortalised by the official photographer is implausible.”

Johnson is due to give evidence before the Privileges Committee at 2pm tomorrow.

If the committee eventually concludes he misled MPs “recklessly” or “intentionally” Johnson could be found in contempt of parliament.

In that situation, members of the Privileges Committee could hit him with a sanction. If they opted to suspend him from parliament for more than 10 days, it would trigger a recall of voters in his Uxbrdge and South Ruislip constituency – giving them the opportunity to demand a byelection.

Lesser penalties would include demanding a written apology or enforcing a salary suspension.

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