Covid Inquiry: Johnson dubs Partygate portrayals ‘a travesty of the truth’

WhatsApps reveal PM apologised to cabinet secretary for “insane business” and pledged they would “get through it and come out on top”
Boris Johnson at the Covid Inquiry yesterday

By Jim Dunton

08 Dec 2023

Boris Johnson has told the Covid Inquiry that media portrayals of restrictions-breaking get-togethers in Downing Street in 2020 and 2021 are a “million miles from what actually happened in No.10” at a time when officials were working particularly hard.

However, the inquiry was also presented with WhatsApp messages between the then-PM and Simon Case from December 2021, when Johnson apologised for the “grief” being piled on the cabinet secretary and acknowledged more should have been done to caution staff about their behaviour.

Yesterday the former prime minister – who quit as an MP after he was found to have misled parliament over his knowledge of the Partygate scandal – was asked directly whether he accepted that rule-breaking events had taken place on his watch.

“I do,” he replied. “I continue to regret very much what happened but I really want to emphasise that the version of events that has entered the popular consciousness about what is supposed to have happened in Downing Street is a million miles from the reality of what actually happened in No.10.

“I speak on behalf of hundreds and hundreds of hard-working civil servants who thought they were following the rules.”

Johnson said some of the media coverage of Partygate and the subsequent dramatic representations had been “absolutely absurd”.

Inquiry chair Baroness Heather Hallett said the Partygate scandal, which saw Johnson, chancellor Rishi Sunak and around 80 other advisers and officials issued with fixed-penalty notices over their rule-breaking behaviour, had “exacerbated” people’s grief.

Johnson said he totally understood people’s feelings.

“What can I do but again apologise for mistakes that we made in No.10?” he asked. “What I’m trying to tell you and tell the inquiry is that I think the characterisation, representation of what civil servants and advisers were doing in No.10 has been a travesty of the truth. They thought they were working very, very hard – which they were.”

Johnson said that with hindsight, he would send repeated messages around No.10 encouraging people to ensure they were following guidance properly.

Inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith KC reminded Johnson that former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara – who also received a Partygate fixed-penalty notice – had said she would struggle to think of a single day when regulations were followed in No.10.

Johnson said he believed MacNamara was referring to the practical difficulties of keeping to the rules as part of the day-to-day business in Downing Street.

“We were having to call, as the inquiry has heard, meeting after meeting after meeting at all hours of the day and night in rapid succession,” he said.

“As Helen MacNamara rightly says, in those conditions it was very hard to follow the letter of the guidance.”

“I am really sorry this thing is now causing you any kind of grief”

Yesterday’s session was presented with a late-night WhatsApp exchange between Johnson and cab sec Simon Case from 17 December 2021. It was the day Case had to recuse himself from leading the Cabinet Office’s official Partygate probe after media reports suggested one of the events had taken place at his private office and that he had been there briefly.

Johnson wrote: “I am really sorry this thing is now causing you any kind of grief at all. The whole business is insane. We will get through it and come out on top.”

Case replied: “Thanks PM. It is a bit grim, but hopefully it will pass and I can get on with the real job I am supposed to do for you!”

Johnson responded: “In retrospect we all should have told people – above all Lee Cain – to think about their behaviour in number ten and how it would look. But now we must smash on.”

Former Downing Street director of communications Cain held a leaving party in Downing Street in November 2020. It was one of the events covered by the Metropolitan Police’s Partygate investigation.

Keith suggested Johnson’s comments were not about technical breaches of the regulations caused by the layout of Downing Street, but a direct reference to the behaviour of his officials and advisers – and how it would appear.

The inquiry continues.

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