Did Boris Johnson mislead Parliament over parties?
Boris Johnson will appear before a committee of MPs on Wednesday 22 March as part of an investigation into whether he misled Parliament over gatherings at Downing Street during lockdown. The Privileges Committee has released an initial report saying there is “evidence that the House of Commons may have been misled” by Mr Johnson when he was prime minister. Mr Johnson has already been fined by police for breaking his own Covid rules.
He could face suspension from the Commons or even lose his seat if the committee finds he was in contempt of Parliament. He resigned as prime minister on 7 July 2022 and stepped down on 6 September. Boris Johnson may face by-election if found to have misled MPs. These are the key times Boris Johnson talked in Parliament about Downing Street parties when he was prime minister.
Context: Labour MP Catherine West asked: “Will the prime minister tell the House whether there was a party in Downing Street on 13 November ?”
What Mr Johnson said: “No – but I am sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.”
Let’s break down his answer. The first part is the apparent denial that there was a party on 13 November 2020. Ms West’s question specified “party” and that is not a term for which there is a precise definition.
Sue Gray, the civil servant who investigated Downing Street parties and gatherings, does not use the word when detailing the events of 13 November. Instead, her report mentions:
a gathering, with food and alcohol, in the press office area to mark the departure of director of communications Lee Cain, where Mr Johnson gave a leaving speech
a gathering, with food and alcohol, in Mr Johnson’s No 10 flat attended by five special advisers and the prime minister.
The photos of the former show the then prime minister raising a glass in front of several people and a table with a number of wine bottles, as well as takeaway food. Mr Johnson said the rules were followed “at all times”.
But we now know they were not. The Metropolitan Police investigation into gatherings at Downing Street led to a total of 126 fines being issued to 83 individuals for breaking Covid rules.
On the specific date he was being asked about, we know the Met issued fines – for breaches of the rules on indoor gatherings of two or more people.
The Met has not specified which event, but the BBC has been told that at least one person who attended the leaving drinks that Mr Johnson was pictured at was fined. The then prime minister did not receive a fine – the Met has not explained why. Mr. Johnson said the guidance was followed “at all times”.
The guidance for working in offices at the time said “only absolutely necessary participants should physically attend meetings” and they should maintain social distancing.
He told Parliament on 23 June that: “Where it is possible to keep 2m apart, people should. But where it is not, we will advise people to keep a social distance of 1m-plus.” That guidance was still current by 13 November.
There was nothing in that guidance document that implied that leaving drinks or other forms of socialising at work were allowed.
But the photos in the Sue Gray report clearly show Mr Johnson drinking in front of staff members – who are standing very close to each other – with bottles of wine on a table.
The Privileges Committee initial report said: “We will consider why Mr Johnson told the House that no rules or guidance had been broken in No. 10 when he knew what the rules and guidance were and was in attendance at gatherings where the rules and guidance were breached.