Boris Johnson was warned against claiming all Covid guidance followed new Partygate evidence reveals
Britain’s most senior civil servant has said he did not give Boris Johnson any assurances that Covid rules were followed at all times in No 10 during lockdown.
Cabinet secretary Simon Case said he offered no assurances in written evidence given to the cross-party privileges committee due to grill Mr Johnson later on whether he misled MPs over the Partygate scandal.
It has also emerged that Mr Johnson was warned by his principle private secretary Martyn Reynolds against claiming that all Covid guidance had been followed – but went ahead and made a denial in the Commons.
And in more highly-damaging evidence, an No 10 official told the committee that Mr Johnson “had the opportunity to shut down” lockdown gatherings – but “allowed the culture to continue”.
The former PM is expected to be questioned for around four hours from 2pm by the Commons committee over his denials of No 10 parties in violation of Covid rules and guidance.
If he is found to have deliberately misled the House then he could be suspended as a MP – potentially leading to a by-election in his Uxbridege and Ruislip constituency.
Mr Case and Mr Reynolds’s testimony appear to be major blows to Mr Johnson’s defence. The former PM has claimed that he simply followed the advice of officials when he told the Commons that gatherings were within the rules.
But an account to the privileges committee shows Mr Reynolds questioned whether the idea that guidance was followed was “realistic”. He said Mr Johnson agreed to delete the mention of guidance – before going on to make the denial at PMQs regardless.
Mr Reynolds said: “He did not welcome the interruption but told me that he had received reassurances that the comms event was within the rules,” the former adviser said.
“I accepted this but questioned whether it was realistic to argue that all guidance had been followed at all times, given the nature of the working environment in No 10. He agreed to delete the reference to guidance.”
But, remarkably – on 8 December 2021 – Mr Johnson choose to tell the Commons that “the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times”.
The cross-party committee published a cache of evidence – including Mr Johnson’s discussions with advisers – ahead of the showdown televised questioning that could determine his political future.
A No 10 official told the committee that Mr Johnson “had the opportunity to shut down” lockdown gatherings but “allowed the culture to continue”.
And unnamed official said: “The former prime minister often saw and joined these gatherings ... The route he took down the corridor looks straight into the press room and vestibule so it’s impossible not to see. He had the opportunity to shut them down but joined in, made speeches, had a drink with staff.”
“He could have taken the issue up with Martin Reynolds, his principal private secretary, to shut them down. He could see what was happening and allowed the culture to continue.”
Mr Johnson has admitted that he misled parliament but claims he did not do so “knowingly” or “recklessly”. In his defence dossier, the ex-PM said he was given assurance about the initial 18 December 2020 Christmas party being within the rules.
However, Jack Doyle, Mr Johnson’s communications chief when the Partygate story broke, denied ever telling the then-prime minister that Covid guidance (rather than rules) was followed at all times in No 10.
In his evidence to the committee, Mr Doyle said: “As per my evidence to the Sue Gray report, in relation to the events I attended I said I believed no rules were broken.”
But asked whether he told Mr Johnson “Covid guidance” was followed at all times, Mr Doyle said: “No.”
Asked whether he told Mr Johnson that “no parties were held in No 10” while restrictions were in force, Mr Doyle said: “I advised the prime minister that I did not consider the event of December 18, 2020 to be a party.”
Mr Doyle highlighted the distinction between Covid rules and the guidelines but No 10 “is an old building with limited space” and although efforts were made to follow guidelines on social distancing “it would not be possible for me to say” they were complied with at all times.
It has also emerged that Mr Johnson gave evidence saying he did not see it as being against Covid rules to go into the No 10 garden and have bottle of wine while at work.
The interview notes from the probe conducted by former senior civil servant Sue Gray show Mr Johnson told Ms Gray’s investigation: “I would encourage people into the garden for the pandemic.
He added: “When you are in the garden and in a meeting it was OK to have a bottle of wine accompanied by alcohol in moderation. Certainly not against the rules as I understand them.“
Former communications chief Lee Cain said it would have been “highly unusual” for him not to have raised concerns with Mr Johnson about a garden party in No 10 on 20 May 2020.
Mr Cain said he could not remember if he personally had a conversation with Mr Johnson, but stated that he told senior aide Dominic Cummings about his concerns over the garden party.
Mr Cummings told the privileges committee that he did tell Mr Johnson the event was against the rules and “he should overrule [Mr Reynolds] and stop it”.
But Mr Johnson has claimed Mr Cummings is not a “credible” witness, given his animosity to his former boss.
Mr Cummings also told the Sue Gray inquiry that “the idea the PM could have thought this drinks event was ‘work’ is comical, given the tables covered in bottles of drink, everyone standing around drinking”.
Mr Reynolds – who emailed staff inviting them to come for “bring your own booze” event in the No 10 garden to “make the most of this lovely weather” in May 2020 – admitted to the committee was “totally inappropriate” in its wording.
The former PM lashed out at the committee of MPs investigating whether he lied to parliament – accusing the cross-party group of “absurd, illogical and partisan” claims in his 52-page dossier published on Tuesday.
Mr Johnson admitted in his evidence that he meant to repeat the line that the 18 December 2020 party was “within the rules” in his statement to the Commons on 1 December 2021, rather than talk about guidance – but instead told the House that “all guidance was followed completely in No 10”.
But senior Tory MP David Davis was scathing about the former Tory PM’s dependence on assurances from commons chief Mr Doyle that the 18 December 2020 party was “within the rules”.
The former cabinet minister told The Independent: “The idea of ministers just saying whatever special advisers write for them is unutterable b*****ks. If that’s the strength of the argument he is sinking without trace. If that’s it, then he’s in for a torrid time.”