Boris Johnson: No10 advisers told me no Covid rules were broken

Boris Johnson - Justin Ng/Avalon
Boris Johnson - Justin Ng/Avalon

Boris Johnson has cited assurances given by senior Downing Street advisers that Covid rules were not broken at partygate events as he denied deliberately misleading Parliament.

In a 52-page document outlining his defence ahead of Wednesday’s hearing before the Commons privileges committee, expected to last between two and four hours, Mr Johnson quotes previously unseen evidence.

The former prime minister references a number of remarks made by Jack Doyle, his director of communications when allegations of Covid lockdown-breaking first emerged in late 2021.

Mr Johnson said that when The Mirror approached Number 10 before its first report about alleged rule-breaking, Mr Doyle said of one of the events that “it was within the rules”.

He also quotes Mr Doyle as later writing in a WhatsApp message when fresh claims about the event emerged: “I think you can say ‘I’ve been assured there was no party and no rules were broken.’”

Both remarks were about a press office event on Dec 18, 2020, at which alcohol was drunk and gifts handed out in a “Secret Santa”. It was later deemed to have broken Covid laws by police.

In his defence, published by the committee, Mr Johnson argues that he relied on the denials from Mr Doyle and other figures in Downing Street for his insistence in the Commons that no rules had been broken.

Another senior press adviser, a senior Number 10 civil servant and two Tory MPs who were often in Downing Street at the time are also quoted to back up the claim that he was given such assurances.

The evidence has been put at the heart of Mr Johnson’s defence argument and is seen by his team as proving that he did not know rules were broken and therefore had not knowingly misled MPs.

But that position is likely to be tested by members of the privileges committee, who appear to be arguing that he should have known events he attended violated lockdown.

Mr Johnson states at one point: “It is clear from that investigation that there is no evidence at all that supports an allegation that I intentionally or recklessly misled the House.

“The only exception is the assertions of the discredited Dominic Cummings, which are not supported by any documentation. There is not a single document that indicates that I received any warning or advice that any event broke or may have broken the rules or guidance.

“In fact, the evidence before the committee demonstrates that those working at Number 10 at the time shared my honest belief that the rules and guidance were being followed.”

Mr Johnson argues the claim from Mr Cummings, his former key aide turned arch-critic, that he had once been warned an event would breach rules was not backed up by evidence. He says Mr Cummings “bears an animus towards me” and he “cannot be treated as a credible witness”.

Elsewhere, Mr Johnson does not categorically deny joking about the lack of social distancing at one event, saying he did not recall making the remark but arguing it would not prove rule-breaking even if said.

He also rejects the argument that it should have been “obvious” to him that Covid laws were being broken, arguing the rules were “necessarily extremely complex”.

The publication of Mr Johnson’s argument comes the day before what could prove to be a defining moment in his hopes, according to allies, of one day making a return to Downing Street.

For months, the privileges committee has been investigating whether Mr Johnson knowingly misled MPs when he told them in late 2021 that no Covid rules had been broken at parties. After investigations into what became known as partygate, the Metropolitan Police issued 126 fines for Covid law breaches to 83 people over eight government events.

Neither side denies that Parliament was misled, with Mr Johnson accepting that point. The debate is over whether he made statements to MPs that he knew to be false.

If the committee concludes that he deliberately misled MPs, it could recommend a suspension from the Commons of 10 or more days – a punishment that, if voted through, could lead to Mr Johnson facing a by-election in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat.

Much of the focus is on the remarks the then prime minister made to the Commons in late 2021 as the first reports of partying during lockdown emerged.

Mr Johnson recounts a conversation he had with Mr Doyle after The Mirror asked about numerous gatherings including the press office Christmas event on Dec 18, 2020.

He says of Mr Doyle, who was present at that event: “He informed me that to call it a party was a great exaggeration. I asked him: ‘Was it within the rules?’ He told me: ‘It was within the rules.’”

Mr Johnson says he then repeated that position in the Commons, leaning on his belief that rules had been followed in Downing Street at all times.

He also cites assurances given after ITV News published footage of Allegra Stratton, a former senior press adviser, appearing to joke about the Dec 18 event.

James Slack, the former Downing Street director of communications who was present at the Dec 18 event, is also quoted saying he told Mr Johnson rules had been followed. Mr Slack is quoted as saying he had a conversation with Mr Johnson about the gathering in which he expressed “my belief that the Covid rules were followed at the event”.

Other comments from Downing Street figures are quoted in the document backing up Mr Johnson’s argument that he was given assurances that rules had been followed.

Andrew Griffith, the Tory MP who was one of Mr Johnson’s parliamentary private secretaries, is quoted as saying: “I recall that in the daily office meeting, as newspapers initially published allegations of gatherings in Number 10, Mr Johnson was given assurances by multiple different 10 Downing Street staff present.”

Sarah Dines, another Tory MP who held the same role as Mr Griffith, is quoted as saying: “I remember on one occasion whilst I was at a meeting with Mr Johnson with many other people in the Cabinet Room that Mr Johnson as a question of the meeting ‘we did follow the rules at all times, didn’t we?’ I recall more than one person in the room said ‘Yes, of course.’”

Martin Reynolds, who as Mr Johnson’s principal private secretary was the top civil servant in his office, said: “I believe that reassurances were provided by some of the senior communications team staff who were present at the event, including Jack Doyle.”

A WhatsApp message sent by Mr Johnson on Dec 10, 2021, as the allegations were emerging, reads: “Is there a way we could get the truth about this party out there.”

The exact context is unclear, but the comment about getting the “truth” out is seen by his team as showing that he wanted transparency. The reference to a “party” is reflecting the media terminology, the defence document notes.

Near the end of the evidence, Mr Johnson distils his argument about the assurances given about the Dec 18 event – the event that formed the basis of his claim to MPs that rules had not been broken, which later proved wrong.

He writes: “For the Dec 18, 2020 event, I relied on assurances I had received from my advisers and, it is clear now, those assurances were wrong.

“As prime minister, I am reliant on advice from officials. There is nothing reckless or unreasonable about that. I was focused on difficult decisions concerning the pandemic (as well as other business that the prime minister needs to address), my diary is packed, Number 10 is a complex environment, and I was constantly in and out of the building.

“My knowledge of what was going on at any given time was imperfect and mostly second-hand. A prime minister cannot be expected personally to investigate matters such as these. I had to rely on, and was fully entitled to rely on, what I was told by my senior, trusted advisers.”

Individuals mentioned in the messages have not publicly commented on the way their remarks have been cited in Mr Johnson’s formal written defence.