Ex-Foreign Office perm sec: No.10 ‘needs to come clean’ on Pincher story

Boris Johnson was personally briefed on inappropriate behaviour three years ago, says Simon McDonald
Happier times: former foreign secretary Boris Johnson and FCO chief Simon McDonald. Photo: REUTERSAndrew Matthews/Pool/Alamy

By Jim Dunton

05 Jul 2022

Former Foreign Office permanent under-secretary Simon McDonald has revealed that Boris Johnson was personally briefed on an investigation that found Christopher Pincher had behaved inappropriately to staff at the department almost three years ago.

Lord McDonald, who was the top civil servant at the then-FCO from 2015 to 2020 – including when Johnson was foreign secretary – said he had decided to speak out because it was time for the government to “come clean” on its knowledge of Pincher’s record.

In an unusual and dramatic intervention into the latest scandal to hit Downing Street, Lord McDonald published a letter he has sent to parliamentary commissioner for standards Kathryn Stone about the government’s response to Pincher’s resignation as deputy chief whip.

The letter blows a new hole in the government’s claims that it was unaware of concerns about Pincher’s track record of bad behaviour before last week’s incident at the Carlton Club, when the MP admitted to having drunk far too much and “embarrassed” himself. Reports have suggested Pincher groped two men on the evening in question.

McDonald said in his letter to Stone that that five days after Pincher’s resignation “inaccurate claims by 10 Downing Street” continued to be repeated in the media.

McDonald said the claims attributed to No.10 that no official complaints had ever been made against Pincher prior to last week were “not true”. He added that a changed line from No.10 yesterday that suggested the prime minister was aware of previous allegations against Pincher, but that they were either “resolved” or  had not proceeded to a formal complaint, were also “not accurate”.

McDonald wrote: “In the summer of 2019, shortly after he was appointed minister of state at the Foreign Office, a group of officials complained to me about Mr Pincher’s behaviour. I discussed the matter with the relevant official at the Cabinet Office. (In substance, the allegations were similar to those made about his behaviour at the Carlton Club.) An investigation upheld the complaint; Mr Pincher apologised and promised not to repeat the inappropriate behaviour. There was no repetition at the FCO before he left seven months later.”

The former perm sec went on to say that it was categorically the case that a formal complaint was made and that Johnson was briefed on the outcome of the investigation in person. He added that Pincher was not exonerated and that it was “wrong” to characterise the 2019 allegations as “unsubstantiated”.

McDonald concluded his letter to Stone by saying: “I am aware that it is unusual to write to you and simultaneously publicise the letter. I am conscious of the duty owed to the target of an investigation but I act out of my duty towards the victims.

“Mr Pincher deceived me and others in 2019. He cannot be allowed to use the confidentiality of the process three years ago to pursue his predatory behaviour in other contexts.”

Shortly after he published the letter to Stone, McDonald appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

He said there was no question that Johnson had not been briefed on the findings of the 2019 investigation into Pincher. He said he had been assured by a senior Cabinet Office colleague that the prime minister had been informed.

“You will understand that such complaints about ministers are very rare; very sensitive. They are dealt with at the very top level. And so I had the help and support of the Cabinet Office through the investigation,” he said.

“I know that the senior official briefed the prime minister in person because that official told me so at the time.”

Asked what the government now needed to do in relation to Pincher, McDonald gave a simple but damning response.

“I think they need to come clean,” he said. “I think the language is ambiguous… it’s sort of telling the truth and crossing your fingers at the same time and hoping that people are not too forensic in their subsequent questioning. And I think that is not working.”

In recent days work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey and children and families minister Will Quince have been tasked with defending government lines that are at odds with the facts as set out by McDonald.

Quince told Sky News he had been given a “categorical assuance” from No.10 that the prime minister was not aware of serious allegations made against Pincher before last week.

McDonald told the Today programme: “The categorical assurance was wrong.”

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