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Boris Johnson may have misled Parliament over ‘partygate’, MPs say, as new picture emerges of ex-PM next to champagne

Boris Johnson may have misled Parliament over ‘partygate’, MPs say, as new picture emerges of ex-PM next to champagne

Evidence strongly suggests that breaches of pandemic rules would have been “obvious” to Boris Johnson when he was at lockdown gatherings, the committee investigating whether he misled Parliament said on Friday.

The cross-party Privileges Committee said MPs may have been misled multiple times by the former Prime Minister as they confirmed he will give evidence to them later this month.

It published its initial report into Mr Johnson’s conduct on Friday, including some previously unseen photos of him at Downing Street parties.

 (PA)
(PA)

During a No10 lockdown leaving-do Mr Johnson said that it was “probably the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now”, according to evidence handed to MPs.

People were reportedly standing four to five deep in Downing Street at the party.

At the time, on November 27 2020, there were Covid restrictions on indoor gatherings of two or more people and maintaining social distancing of two metres in the workplace wherever possible.

Boris Johnson (right) at a gathering celebrating his birthday - in which cake and alcohol was provided - in the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street on 19 July, 2020 (PA)
Boris Johnson (right) at a gathering celebrating his birthday - in which cake and alcohol was provided - in the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street on 19 July, 2020 (PA)

“Mr Johnson attended and gave a speech at a gathering in the vestibule of the No. 10 Press Office to thank a member of staff who was leaving,” the Commons Privileges Committee was told.

“We received evidence that there was no social distancing and people were standing four to five deep.

“We received evidence that Mr Johnson said that it was ‘probably the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now’.

Mr Johnson released a statement claiming the inquiry’s interim report showed he was being “vindicated”.

But the committee said on Friday: “The evidence strongly suggests that breaches of guidance would have been obvious to Mr Johnson at the time he was at the gatherings.

“There is evidence that those who were advising Mr Johnson about what to say to the press and in the House were themselves struggling to contend that some gatherings were within the rules.”

The summary report outlines how then Downing Street Director of Communications Jack Doyle questioned how a gathering on June 19 could not be considered a breach of restrictions.

This picture taken on 13 November, 2020, shows the then prime minister at a leaving gathering in the Press Office of 10 Downing Street (PA)
This picture taken on 13 November, 2020, shows the then prime minister at a leaving gathering in the Press Office of 10 Downing Street (PA)

In a WhatsApp message on January 25 2022 to another No. 10 official in relation to the gathering, Mr Doyle said: “Haven’t heard any explanation of how it’s in the rules”.

In a separate exchange on the same date, the Director of Communications stated: “I’m struggling to come up with a way this one is in the rules in my head.”

In response to a suggestion that they describe the event as “reasonably necessary for work purposes”, he replied “not sure that one works does it. Also blows another great gaping hole in the PM’s account doesn’t it?”.

Mr Johnson, who has maintained he did not knowingly breach restrictions, will give evidence to the Privileges Committee in the week beginning March 20.

After he was fined for breaching lockdown rules by the Met Police in April last year, the then PM spoke about his “humility” as he addressed MPs.

He told the Commons: “I paid the fine immediately, and I offered the British public a full apology.

“As soon as I received the notice, I acknowledged the hurt and the anger and I said that people had a right to expect better of their Prime Minister.

“It did not occur to me then or subsequently that a gathering in the cabinet room, just before a vital meeting on Covid strategy, could amount to a breach of the rules.

“That was my mistake and I apologise for it unreservedly.”

This week he raised concerns this week about the announcement that Sue Gray, the senior civil servant whose investigation revealed damning details about a dozen lockdown gatherings across Whitehall, will move to become Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff.

The committee is examining claims made by Mr Johnson in December 2021 that “all guidance was followed completely in No. 10” and “the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times”.

It will consider why Mr Johnson told MPs that no guidance had been broken “when he knew what the guidance was and was in attendance at gatherings where the guidance was breached”.

The committee will also look into “why he failed to tell the House about the gatherings at which he had been present”.

Media reports Ms Gray’s investigation outlined 12 illegal gatherings, fuelled by suitcases of wine and a karaoke machine, when strict socialising measures were in place.

Photographs showing the Prime Minister giving a toast at an event when lockdown restrictions were in place was published in Ms Gray’s report last year.

If the seven-member Privileges Committee finds Mr Johnson misled Parliament he could face suspension from the Commons for a number of days and calls to resign.