Harman’s report lays out her case ... but Boris says lack of any proof vindicates him
THE Commons Partygate inquiry yesterday released a 24-page report setting the scene for a blockbuster televised session with Boris Johnson.
The privileges committee said it had found evidence that Parliament ‘may have been misled’ by the former PM.
But Mr Johnson seized on the report to say he had been ‘vindicated’ and insisted it showed ‘the obvious truth ... that I have not committed any contempt of Parliament’.
The MPs, led by Labour grandee Harriet Harman, will question the former PM later this month. If he is found in contempt he will face suspension from the Commons and could even lose his seat as an MP.
The report makes clear the committee believes Mr Johnson has a case to answer but it has reserved judgment until hearing from him in person. Here are the key findings.
THE LOCKDOWN GATHERINGS
The report details seven leaving-dos, birthday or Christmas celebrations and other gatherings between May 2020 and January 2021 where either the police or the committee determined lockdown guidance was broken.
The MPs received evidence that Mr Johnson told a leaving-do on November 27, 2020, that it was ‘probably the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now’. A witness claimed staff were stacked ‘four to five people deep’.
The rules at the time included restrictions on indoor gatherings of two or more people and required social distancing in the workplace wherever possible.
The report published a photo from January 2021, when the nation was in lockdown, showing the former PM in the Cabinet
Office in front of a table with empty bottles of bubbly and beer. The Scotland Yard probe found that the event did breach the rules of the national lockdown in force at the time.
The report revealed that a No 10 official had shared fears in WhatsApp messages about ‘leaks of PM having a piss-up’, adding: ‘ To be fair I don’t think it’s unwarranted.’ Other officials ‘struggled’ to come up with justification for events when challenged by the media.
A message from the PM’s communications chief, Jack Doyle, in January 2022, read: ‘Have we had any legal advice on the birthday one? Haven’t heard any explanation of how it’s in the rules.’
Later the same day, in relation to a gathering on June 19, 2020, he said: ‘I’m struggling to come up with a way this one is in the rules in my head.’ The report included fresh pictures of Mr Johnson raising a toast in front of a table of wine, spirits and a takeaway box at a leaving party on November 13, 2020. The photographs show that there was no social distancing,’ the report said.
‘The evidence strongly suggests that breaches of guidance would have been obvious to Mr Johnson at the time he was at the gatherings,’ it added.
In response Mr Johnson said there was no ‘ evidence in the report that I was aware that any events taking place in No10 or the Cabinet Office were in breach of the rules or the guidance’.
WHAT MR JOHNSON TOLD PARLIAMENT
The committee has also combed over Mr Johnson’s statements to determine whether he misled MPs from the despatch box – and whether it was ‘ inadvertent, reckless or intentional’.
At Prime Minister’s Questions on December 1, 2021, Mr Johnson said that ‘all guidance was followed in No10’. A week later he replied to another question from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, saying: ‘I repeat what I have said to him: I have been repeatedly assured that the rules were not broken.’
The MPs on the committee – made up of four Tories, three Labour MPs and one SNP MP – gave a withering indication of their view. They said they
would ‘ consider why Mr Johnson told the House that no guidance had been broken in No10’, adding that they would keep in mind that he ‘ knew what the guidance was’ and that he ‘ was in attendance at gatherings where the guidance was breached’.
But the former PM said: ‘There is no evidence in the report that I knowingly or recklessly misled Parliament, or that I failed to update parliament in a timely manner.
‘Nor is there any evidence in the report that I was aware that any events taking place in No10 or the Cabinet Office were in breach of the rules or the guidance.’
He said he ‘relied upon advice from officials’ and that ‘there is no evidence that I was later advised that any such event was contrary to requirements’.
The report also said: ‘Boris Johnson did not correct the statements that he repeatedly made and did not use the well-established procedures of the House to correct something that is wrong at the earliest opportunity.’
In response he said: ‘When I told the House that the rules and the guidance had been followed, that was my honest belief.’
He did apologise in May 2022 for breaches, telling MPs: ‘I take full responsibility for everything that took place on my watch.’
LINKS TO SUE GRAY
Former senior civil servant Ms Gray carried out the official investigation into the lockdown-breaking Downing Street parties during the pandemic. Published last May, her investigation detailed how officials drank so much they were sick, sang karaoke, became involved in altercations and abused staff.
She criticised ‘failures of leadership and judgment’ in No10 and said ‘the senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility’.
But her resignation on Thursday to take up a political job as Sir Keir’s chief of staff prompted claims from Tory MPs that her inquiry was a Labour ‘stitch-up’.
The privileges committee yesterday defended its investigation, saying it was ‘not based on the Sue Gray report’ but on evidence including witnesses, WhatsApps, emails and official Downing Street photographs.
But Mr Johnson hit back, saying it was ‘concerning’ that the inquiry into whether he lied to MPs relied on evidence from Ms Gray’s findings because she will now be working for Labour. He noted there were 26 references to her in the committee’s new report.
The committee has called Mr Johnson to give evidence in person in the week beginning March 20. The former PM chose to ignore a call for a written submission issued in July.
The committee said it ‘ reserves the right’ to hold more hearings before it finally decides whether the former PM is in contempt. It will present a report to all MPs and, if Mr Johnson is found guilty, they will vote on a sanction.
If the punishment is a suspension from the House of Commons for ten days or more, Mr Johnson will be subjected to a recall petition in his constituency. This could force him to re-contest his west London seat at a by-election.