Boris Johnson lashes out at ‘absurd’ Partygate inquiry claims as he defends drinking wine at work

Boris Johnson lashed out at the committee of MPs investigating whether he lied over Partygate – accusing the cross-party of “absurd, illogical and partisan” claims against him.

Setting out his defence in a 52-page dossier ahead of Wednesday’s TV grilling, the former PM admitted that he misled MPs about rule-breaking – but insisted his denials were made “in good faith” based on what he “honestly” knew at the time.

Mr Johnson said he thought drinking wine at No 10 was within the rules – claiming he and other officials believed that gathering to drink alcohol was necessary for “work purposes”.

The ex-Tory leader defended joining five different leaving parties – arguing it was his “duty” as prime minister to attend – saying: “I might raise a glass to honour a colleague, but that was it.”

He also claimed it was still unclear to him why he was fined for attending his birthday party at No 10 in June 2020 – saying no-one sang to him at the sandwich lunch. “No cake was eaten, and no-one even sang happy birthday.”

Mr Johnson also claimed that any lack of social distancing during the Covid period could be partly be blamed on the “old, cramped London townhouse” of No 10 “with many bottlenecks, and many small rooms”.

He added: “We tried to keep our distance but we knew that proximity was sometimes unavoidable, and we knew that this was acceptable under the guidance.”

Mr Johnson also said he did not recall – but did not deny – making a joke about the 27 November leaving party being “the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK”, a claim noted in the committee’s interim report.

The ex-PM said the joke “seems unlikely”, before adding: “But I might well have made observations in speeches about social distancing, and whether it was being perfectly observed. That does not mean that I thought the guidance was contravened.”

The former Tory leader insisted to the privileges committee inquiry that he “did not intentionally or recklessly mislead the House” and claimed that he corrected the record at the “earliest opportunity” after the Metropolitan Police probe issued 126 fines.

Mr Johnson attacked the “highly partisan” and “selective” content of the committee’s damning interim report, after the group of MPs alleged that it would have been “obvious” to him that Covid guidance was not followed.

The committee is investigating whether Mr Johnson “knowingly” or “recklessly” misleading parliament – but Mr Johnson accused the committee of moving the goalposts by adding “recklessly” to their terms of reference.

Boris Johnson outside his home on Tuesday as he prepares for grilling (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Boris Johnson outside his home on Tuesday as he prepares for grilling (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The ex-Tory leader said the committee appeared to be alleging that it was “in some way reckless” for Mr Johnson to have relied on assurances from trusted advisers on Covid rules and guidance. “That allegation is unprecedented and absurd.”

He insisted that, other than the “assertions of the discredited Dominic Cummings”, his former chief aide turned enemy, there is “not a single document that indicates that I received any warning or advice that any event broke” the rules.

Mr Johnson rejected the idea that Covid rule breaches would have been “obvious” to him. He called the allegation “illogical”, arguing that some of those who attended the events “wished me ill and would denounce me if I concealed the truth”.

“Far from achieving a ‘cover-up’, I would have known that any deception on my part would lead to instant exposure. This would have been senseless and immediately self-defeating,” he wrote.

He said it was “implausible” that he would have known the parties photographed and “immortalised” by his official photographer were rule-breaking.

Boris Johnson and Cummings at 10 Downing Street in 2019 (AFP/Getty)
Boris Johnson and Cummings at 10 Downing Street in 2019 (AFP/Getty)

Referring to the 18 December party of No 10 press office staff – which sparked the Partygate scandal when details appeared in the Mirror – Mr Johnson said his then communications director Jack Doyle said told him: “It was within the rules.”

After video appeared of spokesperson Allegra Stratton joking about the 18 December party, Mr Johnson received a WhatsApp message from Mr Doyle stating: “I think you can say ‘I’ve been assured there was no party and no rules were broken’.”

The former PM also said “everyone around me appeared to be operating under the same understanding of the position”.

Mr Johnson argued that the “overwhelming majority” of the witnesses said they thought rules were being followed – citing Mr Doyle, his official spokesman James Slack and his principle private secretary Martin Reynolds.

However, in their recent damning 20-page interim report, the privileges committee poured scorn on the fact that Mr Johnson’s initial assurances came from a special adviser [Mr Doyle] and was not “a general assurance (that) no guidance or rules were broken”.

The committee also revealed that Mr Doyle admitted there was a “great gaping hole” in Mr Johnson’s account of the birthday party in June 2020, saying he was “not sure” the workplace exemption excuse worked.

And Sue Gray’s report found that Mr Reynolds told a special adviser that “we seem to have got away with” the bring your own booze garden party on 20 May 2020. Mr Cain referred the event as “somewhat of a comms risk”.

But Mr Johnson said in his dossier none of those concerns “were communicated to me”, adding: “These are internal messages between advisers.”

Rishi Sunak has made clear Tory MPs will get free vote on any punishment (Getty/EPA)
Rishi Sunak has made clear Tory MPs will get free vote on any punishment (Getty/EPA)

One problem for Mr Johnson is his admission that he meant to repeat this line that it was “within the rules” in his statement to the Commons on 1 December 2021, rather than talk about guidance – but instead told MPs that “all guidance was followed completely in No 10”.

Another problem is that he referred to the 18 December 2020 event as “party” in a message to Mr Doyle. And he admitted that Mr Reynolds had – in a discussion with Mr Johnson before PMQs on 8 December 2021 – “questioned whether it was realistic to argue that all guidance had been followed at all times”.

If Mr Johnson fails to convince the committee he did not deliberately mislead the Commons, he could be suspended. A suspension of more than 10 days could result in a by-election in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat.

The full Commons would vote on any recommendations. Rishi Sunak has committed to giving his MPs a free vote over Mr Johnson’s fate, but the PM has declined to discuss claims from some of Mr Johnson’s allies that the process is a “witch hunt”.

Johnson allies have questioned the impartiality of Labour grandee Harriet Harman chairing the Tory-majority committee and the use of the Sue Gray report, now she plans to join Sir Keir Starmer’s office.

Labour MP Harriet Harman is chair of privileges committee (Getty Images)
Labour MP Harriet Harman is chair of privileges committee (Getty Images)

The ex-PM received one of the 126 fines issued during Scotland Yard’s investigation into lockdown-breaking parties in No 10 and Whitehall.

But Mr Johnson said it was unclear to him – and possibly to Mr Sunak – why they were fined for attending the 19 June 2020 party. “To this day it remains unclear to me – and I believe the prime minister may feel the same – how precisely we committed an offence under the regulations.”

He added: “We had a sandwich lunch together and they wished me happy birthday. I was not told in advance that this would happen. No cake was eaten, and no-one even sang happy birthday. The primary topic of conversation was the response to Covid-19.”

Defending his appearance at the 13 November 2020 leaving do for then-communications director Lee Cain, he said: “When I looked around the room, I did not think anyone was breaking any rules or guidance: on the contrary, I thought that we were all doing our job.”

The privileges committee, preparing to grill Mr Johnson between 2pm and 6pm on Wednesday, is considering at least four occasions when Mr Johnson may have misled MPs with his assurances that lockdown rules were followed.

Following the release of Mr Johnson’s written evidence, the privileges committee claimed it “contains no new documentary evidence”. But the Johnson camp insisted the WhatsApp communication with Mr Doyle is new.

Rejecting claims from Johnson and his allies of bias and “partisan” claims, the committee said it remains “confident in the fairness of its processes”. An estimated £220,000 of taxpayers’ money has been allocated for Mr Johnson’s legal bills.