Just when you may have started to forget about all the political chaos which ensued under Boris Johnson’s government, the Partygate scandal which played a part in the former prime minister’s downfall last year is back in the news once more.
That’s because Mr Johnson is the subject of an inquiry by parliament’s Privileges Committee, which is looking into whether the Uxbridge and South Ruislip MP “misled the House’ when he made a series of comments about Downing Street parties at Prime Minister’s Questions in December 2021.
On 1 December that year, he told MPs “all guidance was followed in No 10”, and a week later he said “I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken”.
Anyway, we’ve read Mr Johnson’s full submission to the Privileges Committee, so you don’t have to, and here are some of the most important bits. You’re welcome.
1. He admits he actually misled parliament – but not intentionally or recklessly
In a surprising admission, Mr Johnson concedes that he did mislead the House, but “not because I was trying to hide what I knew to be true, but because I said what I honestly believed at the time, and I did not know what the Metropolitan Police and Sue Gray would later uncover”.
“Notwithstanding its extensive investigation, including access to emails and WhatsApp messages, the Committee has not produced any evidence at all that supports a finding that I intentionally or recklessly misled the House of Commons,” he claims.
2. Criticising the “highly partisan tone” of the committee’s most recent report
Referring to the fourth report of the committee, in which the group of MPs write “the evidence strongly suggests that breaches of guidance would have been obvious to Mr Johnson at the time he was at the gatherings”.
Mr Johnson expressed “disappointment” at this particular point being made “despite the fact that the committee has not yet heard any evidence from me”.
3. Claims of cover-ups “illogical”
On this point, Mr Johnson said: “Some of those who attended the relevant events wished me ill and would denounce me if I concealed the truth from the House. Far from achieving a 'cover-up', I would have known that any deception on my part would lead to instant exposure.”
4. Blaming the layout of No 10 for social distancing challenges
Arguing that any lack of social distancing in Downing Street constituted a breach of lockdown guidance is “obviously wrong”, Mr Johnson went on to complain that the building is an “old, cramped London town house, with many bottlenecks, and many small rooms. It is not a modern working environment”.
5. “No one even sang ‘happy birthday’”
In relation to the birthday party on June 2020, an incident which sparked Conor Burns to claim Mr Johnson was “ambushed with a cake”, Mr Johnson further expanded on his argument that the party was something he “knew nothing about in advance”.
“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,” he writes.
Because of course, a birthday party isn’t a birthday party until someone sings ‘happy birthday’…
6. Taking a swipe at his “discredited” former adviser, Dominic Cummings…
The Vote Leave mastermind was consistently critical of Mr Johnson after leaving Downing Street in November 2020, right up to the ex-PM’s downfall, to the extent that the MP has warned the committee he is “discredited” and “cannot be treated as a credible witness”.
Mr Johnson states: “It is no secret that Dominic Cummings bears an animus towards me, having publicly stated on multiple occasions that he wanted to do everything that he could to remove me ‘from power’.
“It is not clear what, if any, work the committee has done to test the credibility of what is now said by Dominic Cummings, including his animosity towards me. If the Committee intends to rely on his evidence, it is essential that his evidence is properly tested by the Committee, allowing me a fair opportunity to participate in that process.”
7. But at the same time arguing it was “reasonable” to rely on the assurances his advisers gave him
Oops. Just a few paragraphs after that written attack on Mr Cummings, Mr Johnson comments: “The committee also now appears to be alleging that it was in some way reckless for me to rely on assurances that I received from trusted advisers. That allegation is unprecedented and absurd.
“It was self-evidently reasonable for me to rely on assurances that I received from my advisers. The suggestion to the contrary would have profound and debilitating implications for the future of debate in the House, and for the ability of ministers to rely on the advice of their officials when answering questions in parliament.”
Even if you think one of them is “discredited”, Boris?
8. His response to the alleged “most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK’ remark
Earlier this year it was reported, from evidence submitted to the committee, that Mr Johnson once joked at an event marking the departure of an official that it was “probably the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now”.
On this claim, Mr Johnson responds: “What the Committee failed to record in the Fourth Report was the next line of [No. 10 official]’s statement: ‘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’.”
But did he actually make the joke?
The former PM goes on to add: “I do not remember saying the words quoted by [No. 10 official] – and it seems unlikely given that it was, as [No. 10 official] says, a small and impromptu event.
“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.
9. Mr Johnson doesn’t appear to contest he gave a “painful” speech at a leaving gathering
This one is more of a tenuous point, but we couldn’t help but laugh at Mr Johnson referencing an article by ex-Downing Street adviser Cleo Watson for Tatler magazine, in which she writes she left No 10 “without a leaving party” but that the then PM gave a “painful, off-the-cuff speech”.
In his submission to the Privileges Committee, Mr Johnson notes that this is “an accurate recollection”, and while we assume he’s specifically referring to the gathering not being a “leaving party”, it’s amusing to us that he doesn’t seem to contest the point that his speech was “painful”.
10. On whether it was “obvious” to him that the rules and guidance were not being followed
In its fourth report, the Committee writes that the evidence it has seen “strongly suggests that breaches of guidance would have been obvious to Mr Johnson at the time he was at the gatherings” – an allegation which the Tory MP says is “fundamentally flawed”.
“If it was ‘obvious’ to me that the Rules and Guidance were not being followed, it would have also been ‘obvious’ to the dozens of others who also attended those gatherings.
Referring to images of gatherings which appeared in the media, Mr Johnson went on to add: “The committee seeks to rely on photographs of the events. However, those photographs support the fact that this was not ‘obvious’.
“The photographs were not covertly taken. They were taken by the official No. 10 photographer.
“Any suggestion that we would have held events which were ‘obviously’ contrary to the rules and guidance, and then allowed those events to be captured by the official photographer, is inherently implausible.”
We haven’t seen someone vent about whether something is obvious or not since we heard Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8r Boi”.
Anyway, the publication of this written evidence should make Wednesday afternoon’s evidence session interesting, as that’s when Mr Johnson is due to submit further oral evidence to the Privileges Committee.
The marathon session is due to get underway at 2pm, finishing at 7pm.
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