Cabinet secretary Simon Case has said he did not tell Boris Johnson that Covid rules were followed at all times in No.10, new evidence to the Privileges Committee reveals.
Evidence from the cabinet secretary, along with a number of officials and advisers, was published this morning ahead of Johnson’s appearance before the committee this afternoon, in which the ex-PM will attempt to convince MPs he did not mislead parliament over lockdown rule-breaking gatherings at No.10 and elsewhere in government.
In the written evidence, the cab sec was asked to confirm whether he had “at any time given Mr Johnson any assurances that Covid rules were followed at all times”. He was also asked if he had given assurances specifically relating to gatherings investigated by Sue Gray, and that no parties took place at No.10 while Covid restrictions were in place. He answered “no” to all three questions.
Case also said he did not know whether anyone else had given Johnson similar assurances.
In evidence published by the committee yesterday, Johnson said he did not “intentionally or recklessly” mislead on the multiple occasions he told parliament that coronavirus rules and guidance were followed “at all times”. He said his statements were “made in good faith” and were based on the advice of officials at the time.
“It was self-evidently reasonable for me to rely on assurances that I received from my advisers,” he wrote. The former prime minister quoted MP Sarah Dines’s evidence to the committee, which said she was “about 90% sure” that Case had been among a group of civil servants who assured Johnson that Covid rules were being followed.
Case’s evidence calls this claim into question.
The published documents include statements from several officials – both named and unnamed – suggesting that officials and politicians believed that Covid rules were being followed at a series of gatherings that took place at at the height of the pandemic.
However, evidence submitted by Johnson’s former principal private secretary Martin Reynolds – who became notorious for inviting officials to a “BYOB” event at Downing Street in May 2020 – suggests that some officials drew a distinction between the legal rules in place at the time and published guidance.
Reynolds described a conversation he had with Johnson just before Prime Minister’s Questions on 8 December 2021, at which Johnson made a statement and answered questions about gatherings including one the previous December. The session came after a video was leaked that showed officials joking about parties during lockdown.
Reynolds said he had asked the then-prime minister – who was preparing for PMQs at the time – “about the line proposed for PMQs… suggesting that all rules and guidance had been followed”.
As key workers, No.10 officials were allowed to gather for work purposes while most people were told to work from home during the 2020 lockdowns. However, May 2020 guidance said that where working from home was not possible, employers should “make every reasonable effort to comply with the social distancing guidelines set out by the government”.
Reynolds wrote that Johnson “did not welcome the interruption but told me that he had received reassurances that the comms event was within the rules".
“I accepted this but questioned whether it was realistic to argue that all guidance had been followed at all times, given the nature of the working environment in No.10. He agreed to delete the reference to guidance," he said.
This exchange was reflected in Johnson’s evidence to the committee, which said he had “removed the reference to guidance in my opening statement” at PMQs “to ensure it was consistent with the reassurances that I had received at that point”.
However, Johnson did claim during the same PMQs session that he was “sure that whatever happened the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times”.
Other evidence submitted to the enquiry partially supported Johnson’s claim that he had been assured that events at No.10 were compliant with rules in place at the time.
James Slack, who was director of communications between January and March 2021, was asked to confirm Johnson’s account of a phone conversation the two had concerning Johnson’s comments to the House of Commons about the gathering on 18 December 2020 and other gatherings. Johnson was quoted as saying: “After the Commons I rang Slacky that evening and he said it was all within rules. They must have thought it was in the rules, James Slack is a serious guy.”
Slack told the committee that while he did not have any notes or record of the conversation, he remembered the “unscheduled” call.
“To the best of my recollection, the account given by Mr Johnson is correct. It is also consistent with the conversation I had with the Cabinet Office inquiry team, which would have taken place at roughly the same point in time that I spoke to Mr Johnson, ie early-mid December 2021,” he said.
He said this was the only such conversation he had with Johnson about the gatherings, and that it “concerned the gathering on December 18, 2020, only”.
The Privileges Committee’s questioning of witnesses also questioned assertions made by officials and spokespeople about the gatherings to the media.
In one submission, a No.10 official – whose name has been redacted from the published document – was asked about a statement they had sent in November 2021 from a No.10 spokesperson to the Daily Mirror stating “Covid rules have been followed at all times”.
The official said it “was the genuine belief at that time that Covid rules had been followed at all times and that on the date set out in the enquiry nothing had happened that was outside the rules”.
They said the period when they had received the enquiry was “a particularly busy period at work” and the press office had “a very short period within which to respond to the enquiry, which was just one of the huge number of other issues we were dealing with at the time”.
“While with the benefit of hindsight I know that more people should have spent more time looking into the facts on this afternoon, it was the genuine belief at that time that Covid rules had been followed at all times,” they added.
Separate evidence from an unnamed No.10 official about the same enquiry said the statement to media about the December 2020 gathering was based on the “genuine understanding and honest belief at that time that Covid rules had been followed at all times”.