OPINION - Boris Johnson may have misled MPs over partygate – inquiry

 (Ben Turner)
(Ben Turner)

News cycles are like cats – you can feed and generally treat them like kings, but they are never something you truly own. Still, on Monday afternoon when Rishi Sunak revealed the Windsor Framework reforming the Northern Ireland Protocol, he might have hoped to earn a full week of positive stories about Tory unity and getting Brexit done. It wasn’t to be.

Tuesday and Wednesday were dominated by leaks of Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages. Thursday saw Keir Starmer hire Sue Gray as his chief of staff. And today, the Commons Privileges Committee published an update on its investigation into whether Boris Johnson misled the House over his comments relating to partygate.

It will do this by considering:

  • What Johnson said to the House

  • Whether what he said was correct or misleading

  • How quickly and comprehensively any misleading statement to the House was corrected

  • If it is established that the House was misled, whether this actually constituted a contempt of the House

This report is not the final version. The former prime minister is to be interviewed by the Committee later this month. But it’s pretty blunt: “The evidence strongly suggests that breaches of guidance would have been obvious to Mr Johnson at the time he was at the gatherings.”

As to whether Johnson misled the House – a serious offence that can lead to suspension from the Commons and in extremis a recall election – the report states: “There is evidence that the House of Commons may have been misled“ and goes on to list four occasions:

  • When Johnson said on 8 December 2021 that no rules or guidance had been broken in No 10 (it states that both Gray and the Met Police have already come to the conclusion that was not correct)

  • When Johnson failed to inform the House of his own knowledge of gatherings where rules or guidance had been broken (because there is evidence he attended them)

  • When Johnson said on 8 December 2021 that he relied upon repeated assurances that the rules had not been broken

  • When Johnson gave the impression that there needed to be an investigation by Gray to establish whether the rules and guidance had been broken before he could answer questions to the House (but "he appears to have had personal knowledge that he did not reveal")

As ever, if you have a spare few minutes, I’d recommend reading the full report yourself. Unlike many Committee documents, it is reasonably short and contains photographs.

Johnson today released a statement conveying his concern regarding Gray’s appointment to the Leader of the Opposition’s office. He said: “It is surreal to discover that the committee proposes to rely on evidence culled and orchestrated by Sue Gray”.

Surrealism aside, today’s Privileges Committee report in fact adds further weight to the contention that those now suggesting Gray has been operating as some sort of Labour Party sleeper cell within the heart of government are not necessarily acting in good faith.

Gray was given the unenviable task of investigating lockdown breaches in No 10 precisely because she commanded respect (and a little fear) across Whitehall and Parliament. She also had a reputation for caution when it came to the release of documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

But more to the point, Gray did not organise parties in No 10. Neither did she attend them, appear on leaked video footage joking about them, hand the prime minister or chancellor fixed penalty notices or publish today’s report.

Finally, because these things can get lost amid the myriad of scandals, the Gray report – a document that Johnson initially claimed had “vindicated” him – is not the reason why he is no longer prime minister. That is because nearly 60 frontbenchers, including the then-chancellor and now prime minister, resigned over the handling of the Chris Pincher affair. Which even the craftiest of conspiratorialist would struggle to land on Gray.

Elsewhere in the paper, Tube and bus passengers will pay £250m more a year to Transport for London as a result of a 5.9 per cent annual fares rise that comes into force on Sunday.

In the comment pages, Emily Sheffield says the lockdown leaks contain two conclusions we can all agree on: WhatsApp did not suit the severity of the discussions. And Matt Hancock is never returning to politics.“ While Paul Flynn reflects on living in his Hackney flat for 20 years — and says this sort of permanence shouldn’t be out of reach for young Londoners.

Finally, another trend that has passed me by totally: how London became obsessed with saunas.

Have a lovely weekend.

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