Boris Johnson has said cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill’s resignation as cabinet secretary was partly the reason for a lockdown-busting garden party at No.10 in May 2020 – despite the event happening a month before the top civil servant stepped down.
Johnson was questioned about the now-infamous “cheese and wine” event at Downing Street during a combative hearing yesterday in which the former prime minister was chastised for relying on “flimsy” assurances from others that Covid rules were followed.
The MPs grilling Johnson quoted his former communications chief Lee Cain as saying the event was a “purely social function”.
The ex-PM said it was “inconceivable” that the event – at which Johnson and staff were pictured drinking alcohol – would have gone ahead if that were the case.
“My purpose there was to thank staff, was to motivate them in what had been a very difficult time – and what was also a very difficult day in which the cabinet secretary had just resigned.”
However, Lord Sedwill’s resignation was not announced until 28 June – more than a month after the event on 20 May. Sedwill's resignation letter was also dated 28 June.
Asked by CSW if Sedwill’s resignation had been confirmed internally at an earlier date, the Cabinet Office said it had nothing to add to the June 2020 announcement.
During the nearly three-hour hearing, an increasingly irate Johnson repeatedly insisted that the controversial gatherings that took place at No.10 at the height of the pandemic were necessary for work purposes – and therefore compliant with Covid rules and guidance.
The MPs are trying to determine if Johnson misled parliament when he said Covid rules and guidance were followed "at all times" despite the so-called Partygate events taking place.
Of the “bring your own booze” garden event, Johnson said: “People who say we were partying in lockdown simply do not know what they are talking about. People who say that that event was a purely social gathering are quite wrong.”
He also insisted a gathering that took place in No.10 the following month to mark his birthday was “reasonably necessary for work purposes” – phrasing used in guidance published during the pandemic to help the public and employers follow coronavirus restrictions.
In June 2020, people were required to work from home where possible, and to observe social-distancing measures as much as possible when they were required to attend a workplace.
But that month, Johnson was pictured being presented with a birthday cake in his Downing Street office/the Cabinet Room, surrounded by several people including his wife Carrie Johnson and interior designer Lulu Lytle as well as staff.
“I thought it was reasonably necessary for work purposes because I was standing at my desk surrounded by officials who had been asked to come and wish me a happy birthday. I’d only recently recovered from an illness, from Covid, and it seemed to me to be a perfectly proper thing to do,” he told MPs. He said the short gathering happened ahead of a meeting that was to be attended by “very largely the same officials”.
But pressed on why his wife and designer had attended the gathering, he said: "It is one of the peculiarities of No.10 that the PM and his family live in the same building and my understanding of the rules is that the family is entitled to use that building and use every part of that building."
He did not explain why Lytle – whom he referred to as a “contractor in the building” when questioned – had attended.
Johnson also argued that a leaving do for Cain in November 2020 – at which the then-PM was pictured raising a toast, surrounded by people drinking – was “not only reasonably necessary but it was essential for work purposes”.
The event was “necessary to steady the ship” after the twin departures of Cain and top political adviser Dominic Cummings “in very, very difficult and challenging circumstances”, he said.
“It was necessary to show that there was no rancour, the business of the government was being carried on – that’s what we had to do, that’s what I had to do,” he added.
But despite defending the events, Johnson admitted that he had been wrong to tell parliament that Covid guidance had been followed at all times.
“When I said the guidance had been followed completely in No.10... I was misremembering the line that had already been put out to the media about this event, which was ‘Covid rules were followed at all times’,” he said.
He repeated the assertion – also made in his written evidence, which was published the day before the hearing – that he was right to rely on the assurances of officials and advisers that the events had been compliant with Covid rules.
But committee members repeatedly challenged Johnson’s assertions that statements he had made to parliament were in “good faith”, because he had relied on other people’s opinions.
Challenged by committee member and Conservative MP Alberto Costa on whether relying on assurances from others was a “deflection mechanism to prevent having to answer questions about your knowledge of these gatherings”, Johnson said: “No, that would be a completely ridiculous assessment.”
Committee chair Harriet Harman likened Johnson’s defence to seeing a speedometer at 100mph but then denying speeding because someone told him he was within the speeding limit.
“Do you actually think we would be entitled to be a bit dismayed about the flimsy nature of this assurance?” the Labour MP asked.
And Jenkin asked why Johnson had not taken “proper advice” – saying that if he were in similar circumstances
Johnson dismissed the suggestion as “complete nonsense”. “I asked the relevant people, they were senior people,” he said