The prime minister has refused to rule out that there are outstanding allegations of sexual misconduct against ministers.
Boris Johnson told MPs this afternoon that he could not definitively say he had not been told about allegations similar to those made against former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher during his time as PM.
Pincher resigned last week after being accused of groping two men, saying he had “embarrassed myself and other people”. No.10 initially said Johnson had been unaware of concerns about the Tory MP’s record of bad behaviour – a claim that was contradicted yesterady by former Foreign Office permanent secretary Simon McDonald, sparking a wave of ministerial resignations.
In a heated exchange at the Liaison Committee this afternoon, parliamentary standards committee chair Chris Bryant asked Johnson: “Have you been told about any other allegations similar to those levelled at Mr Pincher about any other ministers in your time as prime minister?”
“I just have to tell you, Chris, that it is all too possible that people have said things to me about any number of people, including possibly people around this horseshoe,” the PM replied, referring to the arrangement of MPs’ seating in the committee room.
“It would be a great labour for me now to sit down and try to reconstruct every single piece of gossip or innuendo,” he added.
Bryant interrupted to clarify: “That's not what I'm asking. I'm not asking about gossip. I'm asking precisely… you now accept that you were told on two occasions about the allegations against Mr Pincher that were upheld. I'm asking, have you been told about any other such events relating to any other government ministers, formally?
“Look, I’d have to get back to you,” Johnson said. “I would not want to extemporise.”
Bryant responded: “It seems extraordinary, that you wouldn't know whether there are allegations outstanding against your government ministers of sexual impropriety such that they might constitute potentially criminal offences, apart from anything else.”
“Look – nothing that springs to mind, ok?” Johnson said.
Johnson admits ‘discrepancy’ in No.10 account
Just before the exchange, Johnson confirmed he had been briefed on Pincher’s behaviour twice by propriety and ethics officials. He said on both occasions, he had received “an extremely short oral account”, of which there was no written record.
He admitted there had been a “discrepancy” between these facts and claims by No.10 that no official complaints had been made against Pincher prior to last week. The discrepancy was made public in ex-civil servant Lord McDonald's letter to the parliamentary standards commissioner, which said that five days after Pincher’s resignation, the media was still repeating “inaccurate claims by 10 Downing Street”.
Johnson said: “When it was drawn to my attention a couple of days later that there was a discrepancy between... what No.10 was saying, and the fact that this briefing had taken place, I took steps to clear things up as soon as I could."
The PM said he and others had “failed to go over all possible interactions” he had had with Pincher and “all the possible decisions that I might have taken”.
He said the Pincher’s conduct had been raised with him as “a point of information about what had happened” rather than as a matter for him to make a decision about, as the matter had been dealt with by the Foreign Office.
Pressed on his decision to appoint Pincher to the role, Johnson said he had been “optimistic” about the MP’s ability to change and learn from his past behaviour.
In response, Bryant concluded that the same was true of Johnson, saying: “You’re not going to learn any lessons and you’re not going to change.”
PM accused of trivialising sexual assault
Johnson also declined to confirm or deny whether he had previously said “all the sex pests are supporting me” and “Pincher by name, pincher by nature”.
Asked whether he has used either phrase, he said: “People attribute all sorts of things to me. I don’t remember saying those words." He did, however, deny having called the MP “a bit handsy”, saying “handsy” is “not a word I use”.
“I’m not going to get into some trivialising discussion of what I may or may not have said. This is a serious matter,” he told the committee.
“The member has had, I believe, a complaint made against him. And that is where I propose to leave it.”
Johnson has been accused by several departing members of his government of minimising the allegations against Pincher. In his resignation letter, former PPS Mark Fletcher said the PM had acted as “an apologist for someone who has committed sexual assault”.
Fletcher said that in a private conversation yesterday, the prime minister had placed some of the blame for Pincher’s conduct at the Carlton Club on “colleagues who were present for allowing him to drink too much” – an interpretation he called “crass and insensitive”.
Johnson drew similar ire from members of the committee this afternoon for suggesting there was a problematic drinking culture in parliament as well as problematic behaviour – saying the recent events had made him realise that “some people simply can't take their drink”.
Caroline Nokes, chair of parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee, asked if the PM was suggesting alcohol was an “excuse” for sexual harassment and suggested he was minimising the issue of sexual assault.
Asked if Pincher should resign from parliament, Johnson said: “It’s a matter for him.”