Partygate defence dossier: how Boris Johnson tried to contain a scandal

·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

The 52 pages of Boris Johnson’s Partygate defence dossier drip with insights into the way he and senior No 10 figures tried to deal with and contain what became a spiralling scandal that engulfed his premiership.

Although the string of law-breaking parties during the pandemic first came to light 16 months ago, there are plenty of new revelations about the gatherings, conversations with key witnesses and briefings to both the press and parliament.

This is what we learned from what was hyped by Johnson’s team as a “bombshell” dossier:

Johnson accepts he misled parliament

There was something approaching a mea culpa from the former prime minister, when he began the report by being up front about having given statements that turned out later to have been patently untrue.

Recalling how he insisted in parliament that “all guidance was followed completely in No 10”, Johnson admitted he strayed further than the agreed line that “Covid rules have been followed at all times” briefed to newspapers the previous day.

Looking back on the assurances he gave, Johnson acknowledged he went off script and that ultimately “the Commons was misled by my statements”.

Partly, he said, this was due to being so unprepared to be challenged about the story at prime minister’s questions on 1 December 2021.

So taken aback by the claims was he that Johnson said he thought the initial approach to the press office about a Christmas party in defiance of Covid restrictions was “some kind of try on”.

“I did not anticipate that this would be a big story,” he admitted.

Others are blamed for telling him no rules were broken

Johnson tried to diminish his responsibility for having a firm grip on the happenings in No 10 by saying he turned to others for an explanation of events he was not at.

“My knowledge of what was going on at any given time was imperfect and mostly second-hand,” he admitted.

The Christmas party, on 18 December 2020, was the first event to emerge.

Johnson turned to Jack Doyle, his then-director of communication, for answers. He was told how there was a weekly gathering by the press office on Friday afternoons, often involving drink. On this occasion, there was cheese and wine as well as a secret Santa.

“Was it within the rules?” Johnson recalled asking Doyle. “It was within the rules,” came the reply.

Johnson claimed he was too distracted to have noticed the party at the time. He recollected having been at a meeting about the London lockdown, and not seeing or hearing anything untoward after.

He cannot pin the blame entirely on Doyle, though. Johnson messaged him, asking: “Is there a way we could get the truth about this party out there?” The clumsy use of the word ‘party’ meant he was forced to explain why he believed it was within the rules.

“I used ‘party’ as shorthand because that is how it was being referred to in the media,” was Johnson’s defence.

A running theme throughout the evidence was that other senior advisers and officials all thought the events were within the rules. Those Johnson name-checked included his principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds; his media adviser James Slack; and his civil service official spokesperson.

Another piece of evidence Johnson used to suggest he was simply repeating assurances he had been given came in the form of a PMQs prep pack on 8 December. The written briefing was said to have contained the line: “No 10 has always followed all Covid rules.”

Johnson also pointed to the Cabinet Office inquiry he announced that day, to bat away suggestions he did not correct the record when it became clear his statement to parliament was wrong.

“I acknowledged that the truth would be established independently, and that I might subsequently be found to have been wrong,” he wrote.

Johnson’s attendance at events extended beyond the one he was fined for

Never before has the former prime minister been definitive about the number of events he attended that broke Covid rules.

His presence at some of them has been well-documented, even though he was only ever fined once – for the gathering on his birthday in the cabinet room.

“I personally attended five of the events referred to by the [privileges] committee,” confessed Johnson.

However, others did receive fines for attending the same events he did.

“I can only assume that it related to conduct after my departure, and that the event escalated into something different in nature to what I had seen,” was Johnson’s defence.

This was designed to demonstrate ignorance of the much more rowdy affairs that the events ballooned into.

A key piece of witness testimony was claimed by Johnson to have been left out of that released by the privileges committee, regarding his attendance at special adviser Cleo Watson’s leaving do on 27 November 2020.

Though an attendee said he remarked it was “probably the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now”, Johnson said they had also given evidence suggesting he behaved sensibly.

The No 10 official is said to have observed: “He had a glass of water in his hand, made a short speech and then went up to his flat. He was the most sensible person there to be honest.”

An elastic approach was taken to the rules

While Johnson maintains throughout that his misleading of parliament was neither intentional nor reckless, he accepted the rules were treated flexibly.

He denied No 10 was “a guidance-free bubble where the requirements we imposed on the rest of the country did not apply”.

But in the same dossier, Johnson admitted it was not the case that “social distancing was complied with perfectly in No 10”. He insisted this “was not required by the guidance … provided you did what you could overall” and put additional mitigations in place.

Proximity was “sometimes unavoidable” and “there were times when people inevitably came closer to each other” despite their best intentions, Johnson said.

He also believed the Christmas party in 2020 was “firmly within the work exception”, which allowed people to leave their home during lockdown if necessary to do their job.

Some mitigation was even offered by Johnson by the pressure cooker atmosphere in No 10. He said staff were regularly “working around the clock”, with press officers preparing to deliver “difficult messages” that people would have to spend Christmas apart.

That was not enough to save Allegra Stratton, his press secretary. When video of her laughing about a party emerged, Johnson said it caused him “immediate concern”. While Johnson said he still believed the event had been within the rules, he was concerned about the “impression that it gave”.

Bad blood with former No 10 colleagues remains

Having been relentlessly targeted by his closest adviser-turned-nemesis Dominic Cummings, Johnson singled him out in the dossier.

“There is no evidence at all that supports an allegation that I intentionally or recklessly misled the house,” said Johnson.

“The only exception is the assertions of the discredited Dominic Cummings, which are not supported by any documentation.”

Cummings, who these days refers to his old boss as a “trolley”, has previously claimed Johnson “lied to parliament” and knew that concerns were raised about a “bring your own booze” party in the Downing Street garden.

A swipe was also issued at what appeared to be other Downing Street staff by Johnson.

“Some of those who attended the relevant events wished me ill and would denounce me if I concealed the truth from the House,” he argued.

Attacks on the privileges committee were more restrained than thought

Despite suggestions Johnson would lay into the “biased” committee and its Labour chair, Harriet Harman, criticism of the cross-party group was fairly careful.

After warnings that any attacks on the committee could themselves constitute a contempt of parliament, he focused on the evidence it has so far presented against him.

The seven MPs on the committee were said by Johnson to have “trawled the contemporaneous documents, and not found a single record that indicates that I ever received any such warning”.

He accused them of “straying beyond its terms of reference”.

After the committee conducted a site visit to No 10 to assess the layout of the building and whether parties could have taken place discretely, Johnson sought to head off questions about how he did not come across the gatherings.

“I accept that I could see into the Press Office on my way to the flat, although my attention is often elsewhere when I am returning to the flat,” was his explanation.

What was not revealed in the defence dossier

Notably absent from the 14,200-word document produced by Johnson was any mention of one of the most curious aspects of the whole scandal: “the Abba party”.

This was said to have taken place in Johnson’s flat on 17 November 2020, with Abba music so loud it could be heard by those working downstairs.

Johnson was asked a vague question in parliament about whether there were any parties in Downing Street that day, to which he gave the emphatic answer “no”.

It turned out to be the same day as another party marking the departure of Johnson’s media adviser Lee Cain.

In his defence dossier, the ex-prime minister said he attended both Cain’s leaving do and “another event later the same day” – without divulging any details.

“Neither event was a ‘party’”, said Johnson, stressing he “honestly and reasonably believed” the rules were followed “at those events”.

Any fresh evidence of a party in Johnson’s own flat might help build a clearer case that he recklessly or intentionally misled parliament. So it is likely to be dug into thoroughly by the privileges committee during its four-hour hearing on Wednesday.