Boris Johnson was set to lock horns with senior MPs on Wednesday over whether he intentionally or recklessly misled Parliament over the partygate scandal.
Ahead of the high-octane showdown, the Commons privileges committee published a 110-page dossier at 9am covering areas which they were due to grill the ex-PM in the afternoon. The hearing, which was due to last up to four hours, could determine Mr Johnson’s political future. Ahead of it, he and the committee exchanged heavy blows.
The committee claimed in a report published on March 3 that evidence strongly suggested that breaches of Covid guidance would have been obvious to Mr Johnson at the time he was at No10 gatherings. But he hit back, accusing the MPs of straying beyond the remit given to them by the Commons on the basis that they should be probing whether he breached Covid regulations, not the guidance. He has also accused the inquiry of being biased, claims rejected by the committee.
The former premier has admitted misleading Parliament over parties in No 10 when Britain was in lockdown or under other Covid restrictions. But he denies doing so intentionally, insisting what he told MPs had been in “good faith”.
As Mr Johnson was thrust back into the spotlight over partygate, he also put himself at the helm of a revolt against Rishi Sunak’s plans for post-Brexit Northern Ireland trade ties.
The privileges committee is being chaired by Labour MP Harriet Harman but has a Conservative majority. Its hefty dossier, which includes numerous emails, interview records and photos relating to partygate, has conflicting evidence over whether Mr Johnson was told that gatherings in No 10 were within the Covid rules.
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case said he did not give the premier assurances that Covid rules and guidance were followed at all times in No 10. In a questionnaire the senior civil servant also said he did not advise the PM that no parties were held in No 10, adding that he did not know whether anyone else gave those assurances to Mr Johnson.
But Mr Johnson’s former PPS Sarah Dines MP said she was “90 per cent sure” Mr Case did tell the PM that all rules were followed.
She said: “I remember on one occasion whilst I was at a meeting with Mr Johnson with many other people in the Cabinet Room that Mr Johnson asked a question of the meeting: ‘We did follow the rules at all times, didn’t we?’ I recall more than one person in the room said ‘Yes, of course’. I am not certain who the people were who said yes, but I am certain they were civil servants, and it was more than one voice. I am about 90 per cent sure one of them was Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary.”
Ms Dines said she could not remember the exact date of the meeting, but it was around the beginning of December 2021 when the partygate scandal was “very much in the eye of the media”.
She said she recalled thinking “thank goodness” when Mr Johnson was reassured that rules were followed.
The evidence also showed that Mr Johnson agreed to delete a proposed line for Prime Minister’s Questions stating that all guidance had been followed after a warning from his then principal private secretary Martin Reynolds.
In written evidence to the privileges committee, Mr Reynolds said: “I do recall asking the then prime minister about the line proposed for PMQs on December 7, suggesting that all rules and guidance had been followed.
“He did not welcome the interruption but told me that he had received reassurances that the comms event was within the rules. 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, on December 8, 2021, Mr Johnson went on to tell the Commons “the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times”.
The committee’s verdict could be significantly influenced by the question of whether they are judging if he intentionally or recklessly misled Parliament based on his comments about the rules, or the guidance as well.
He has accused the committee of moving the goalposts by focusing on whether he “recklessly” misled Parliament, insisting he was relying on the advice from his No10 officials whether the gatherings were within the rules.
Mr Johnson’s former communications chief Lee Cain said it would have been “highly unusual” for him not to have raised concerns with the PM about a garden party in No10 during lockdown.
Mr Cain said he could not remember if he personally had a conversation with the PM about it, but stated that he told Mr Johnson’s senior aide Dominic Cummings about his concerns over the May 20, 2020 gathering.
Evidence published by the committee shows Mr Cain initially raised his doubts about the event in response to an email from Mr Reynolds inviting staff to the “socially distanced drinks”. Mr Cain said he shared his concerns with Mr Cummings who “agreed it should not take place and said he would raise the issue with Martin and the prime minister”.
He added: “I do not recall if I personally had a conversation with the PM about the garden party but it would have been highly unusual for me not to have raised a potentially serious communications risk with the PM directly — especially having raised it with his PPS and the matter remaining unresolved.”
Mr Johnson denies being told the garden party was a breach of the rules.
Ahead of the hearing, a source close to him said: “He is very much looking forward to putting his case today finally.”
If the committee concludes Mr Johnson did intentionally or recklessly mislead Parliament, it could recommend that he be suspended from the Commons. If the suspension is at least 10 days, it would trigger a recall petition which could lead to a by-election in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency.
The Metropolitan Police issued 126 fines for lockdown breaches in Number 10 and across Whitehall.
Mr Johnson received one penalty for attending his birthday party in the Cabinet Room on June 19, 2020. His wife Carrie and then-chancellor Rishi Sunak were also fined for being at the event.