Pressure on Johnson over whether MPs misled on partygate

Boris Johnson is facing fresh pressure over partygate after MPs said evidence strongly suggests breaches of coronavirus rules would have been “obvious” to the then-prime minister.

The cross-party Privileges Committee said the Commons may have been misled at least four times, with MPs set to cross-examine Mr Johnson later this month.

The former prime minister offered a robust defence, as he claimed that the inquiry’s preliminary report showed he was being “vindicated” and he sought to cast doubt on civil service investigator Sue Gray’s own report into events in Downing Street following her move to Sir Keir Starmer’s office.

Sue Gray quits the Cabinet Office
Senior civil servant Sue Gray (Aaron ChownPA)

According to the written evidence in the committee’s interim report, Mr Johnson remarked a mid-pandemic leaving party in No 10 was “probably the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now”.

WhatsApp messages given to the inquiry show advisers “struggling” with how parties were within the rules, with one conceding an excuse “blows another great gaping hole in the PM’s account”.

The committee said: “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.”

It also defended its probe from Mr Johnson’s comments, saying it is “not based on the Sue Gray report”, which last year detailed lockdown-breaking, booze-fuelled parties in Downing Street during Mr Johnson’s leadership.

Mr Johnson told broadcasters on Friday that people may now look at the Gray inquiry in a “different light”.

“If you told me at the time I commissioned Sue Gray to do the inquiry, if you told me all the stuff that I now know, I think I might have cross-examined her more closely about her independence.”

Sir Keir refused to say when conversations with Ms Gray began about a role in Labour, but the surprise move has been used by allies of Mr Johnson attempt to discredit the Privileges Committee inquiry.

Evidence published on Friday included messages between No 10’s then communications director Jack Doyle and an official discussing the birthday gathering held for Mr Johnson in 2020, for which the ex-PM was fined by police.

Mr Doyle wrote: “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 said: “Not sure that one works does it? Also blows another great gaping hole in the PM’s account doesn’t it?”

One No 10 official in another exchange said a colleague was “worried about leaks of PM having a piss-up and to be fair I don’t think it’s unwarranted”.

Further evidence came in the form of new photos showing Mr Johnson and colleagues drinking alcohol in close confines.

During strict post-Christmas lockdown rules, the then Conservative leader can be seen apparently mid-speech in front of four bottles of sparkling wine, as well as beers.

The committee will cross-examine what Mr Johnson knew at the time of his various denials to the Commons, including saying on December 8, 2021 that no rules had been broken despite Ms Gray and the police concluding otherwise.

In a statement, Mr Johnson said: “I believe that their labours have helped establish the obvious truth: It is clear from this report that I have not committed any contempt of Parliament.

“It is also clear that what I have been saying about this matter from the beginning has been vindicated.

“That is because there is no evidence in the report that I knowingly or recklessly misled Parliament, or that I failed to update Parliament in a timely manner.”

In what is likely to be a highly anticipated appearance, Mr Johnson is expected to give oral evidence as part of the inquiry and which will be broadcast live on television in the week starting March 20.

Mr Johnson received one of the 126 fines issued by Scotland Yard over lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street and Whitehall.

If found to have lied to Parliament and suspended for more than 10 days, he could be forced to face a by-election.