Covid Inquiry: Boris Johnson rejects claims No.10 was 'toxic'

Ex-PM says he had "no difficulty recruiting the best possible people" despite claims people were deterred by working environment
Boris Johnson gives evidence to the Covid Inquiry

Boris Johnson has said he does not recognise claims that No.10 was a “toxic” place to work under his watch at the height of the Covid pandemic.

Johnson was grilled this morning on evidence that has unfolded during the course of the Covid Inquiry that power struggles and infighting had damaged morale and decision making at the centre of government, and had even deterred people from applying for jobs in the administration.

Citing evidence to this effect from former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara and others, counsel for the inquiry Hugo Keith KC asked: "Were you aware that there were individual civil servants and advisers who were not prepared to work in your administration because of the atmosphere and the working relationships which were in play?"

“First of all, no, I was not aware of that," Johnson said.

"Secondly, I didn't see any sign of that. I saw brilliantly talented people. When we advertised for a post, when we wanted to recruit for a position in my private office we had, as far as I could see, no difficulty getting wonderful people to step forward.”

Asked about a message from then-No.10 perm sec Simon Case warning the PM saying that several people had refused to work for government because of the reputation of Johnson’s administration, he said: “I don't remember that. And my impression was that we had no difficulty recruiting the best possible people.”

Keith also cited messages from Johnson’s chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, about Matt Hancock, which described the then-health secretary’s “incompetence”.

“You cannot suggest that you are unaware of the opinion taken by your chief adviser over your secretary state for health. You cannot suggest you are unaware of the concerns expressed by your cabinet secretary about the toxic reputation of your operation because he WhatsApped you directly. You cannot suggest that the word grave concerns being expressed in Downing Street, that there were people who simply would not come and work for you because of the atmosphere you were allowed to develop,” Keith said.

Johnson did not respond directly to the comments about his operation’s “toxic reputation” but defended Hancock.

“In politics, there's never a time when you're not – if you're prime minister, you are constantly being lobbied by somebody to sack somebody else… everybody's constantly militating against some other individual for some reason,” he said.

“It is perfectly true that this adviser in particular had a low opinion of the health secretary. I thought he was wrong. I stood by the health secretary. I think the health secretary worked very hard... He may have had defects but I thought that he was doing his best in very difficult circumstances and I thought he was a good communicator,” he added.

Pressing further, Keith cited a WhatsApp message in which Case said he had “never seen a bunch of people less well equipped to run a country”.

“That's not a matter of atmospherics or lobbying or part of the general day-in, day-out friction within government, is it?” he asked.

“Yes, I think it is,” Johnson said.

“And I think that if you'd had the views of the mandarinate about the Thatcher government, in unexpurgated WhatsApps, m’lady, I think you would have found that they were pretty fruity. WhatsApp conversation is intended to be – though clearly it isn't – ephemeral. It tends to the pejorative...and the hyperbolical.

“I think that the worst vice, in my view, would have been to have had an operation where everybody was so deferential and so reluctant to make waves that they never expressed their opinion.”

Team 'too male-dominated'

While he rejected other criticisms, Johnson admitted that "too many meetings were too too male dominated".

"If I might make one self-criticism, I think that the the gender balance of my team should have been better," he said.

He compared the situation to his time as London mayor, when he said the gender balance was 50/50 "and it was a very harmonious team".

"I tried sometimes to rectify that; I tried to recruit a former colleague from from City Hall. But I think that was a that was something we should have done better," he said.

'Any administration' would have faced criticism

Johnson was also asked about the highly critical and often inflammatory WhatsApp messages sent between staff in the early months of the pandemic – including whether expletive-laden messages sent by Cummings "revealed an abusive and misogynistic impact", and what they revealed about the operations of government.

"In the round, that material paints an appalling picture... at times of incompetence and disarray," Keith said.

Johnson said the messages give a "feeling for the relationships between human beings" but that he would draw a “distinction between the type of language used and the decision-making processes of the government and what we got done”.

"First of all, a lot of the language the style that you refer to is completely unknown to me or indeed to anybody else, not on the on that [WhatsApp] group," he said.

However, he said he had “apologised to one particular person who suffered abuse in one of those publicised WhatsApp exchanges”.

He said that “any powerful and effective government”, including the Thatcher and Blair administrations, “has a lot of challenging and competing characters whose views about each other might not be fit to print but to get an awful lot done”.

“And that's what we did,” he added.

Keith quoted an extract from the diary of former government chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, which said then-cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill had described Johnson’s administration as “brutal and useless”, and said it was difficult to motivate staff in No.10 who felt they were being “shot in the back”.

Asked if he agreed with this description, Johnson said: “I think that actually what you're looking at… is a lot of highly talented, highly motivated people who are stricken with anxiety about what is happening about the pandemic, who are doing their best. And, like all human beings under great stress and great anxiety about themselves and their own performance, will be inclined to be critical of others.

“And I think that that would have been the same of any administration facing the same sort of challenges on that scale.”

He said the criticism expressed in WhatsApp and other messages shared by the inquiry was a “good and healthy thing” because “we needed constantly to challenge ourselves and constantly to try to do better”.

“It would not have been right if we'd had a load of WhatsApp saying, ‘aren't we doing brilliantly, folks? Isn't this going well?’”

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