Lies, Falsehoods and Misrepresentations from Boris Johnson to Rishi Sunak

‎”All guidance was followed completely in No. 10″

Boris Johnson, Prime Minister’s Questions

Facts

In response to a question from Keir Starmer at PMQs about alleged parties hosted at Downing Street during the Christmas period in 2020, Boris Johnson said: “All guidance was followed completely in No. 10”.

When the Prime Minister’s spokesperson was questioned on the alleged parties, they responded saying: “We don’t recognise these accounts and all Covid rules have been followed at all times.” 

On the 16th December 2020, Boris Johnson said: “This Christmas it’s vital that everyone exercises the greatest possible personal responsibility.” 

This was the same day that London went into tier 3 restrictions, which means that “No person may participate in a gathering” – unless it was reasonably necessary for work (UK Health Protection Regulations). 

The guidance said: “Although there are exemptions for work purposes, you must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primary social activity.” (Christmas period guidance 2020).

On the morning of the 18th December, on which the UK recorded 514 Covid-19 deaths, Boris Johnson tweeted: “If you are forming a Christmas bubble, it’s vital that from today, you minimise contact with people from outside your household.” 

Hours after that tweet was posted, there was reportedly a Christmas party in Number 10 Downing Street.

The Mirror reported that around “40 or 50” people were said to have been crammed “cheek by jowl” into a medium-sized room in Number 10 for each of two parties during December 2020.

“It was a Covid nightmare,” one source claimed.

The BBC’s Laura Keunssberg later reported that there had been “several dozen” people in attendance, with food, drink and even party games on offer, with the event going past midnight. 

Another Downing Street insider told the Financial Times that there were often get-togethers in the evenings in No. 10 while the country was in lockdown last Christmas. They said: “It was the only place you could get together and socialise. They happened most Fridays.” 

Another source told the Mirror: “The Prime Minister gave the impression that it could be very relaxed in No. 10. He would either turn a blind eye, or on some occasions attend himself while everyone else was in lockdown.” 

Later, an image was shared by the Guardian of Boris Johnson, his wife Carrie Johnson and up to 17 staff in the Downing Street garden with what appears to be cheese and wine in May last year, as the whole country was in lockdown.

At the time social mixing between households was limited to two people, who could only meet outdoors and at a distance of at least two metres.

In workplaces, the guidance said in-person meetings should only take place if “absolutely necessary”.

According to the Sue Gray report into Downing Street parties: “On 18 December 2020 a gathering lasting several hours took place in the No 10 Press Office. Between 20 and 45 individuals attended over the course of the evening to celebrate the end of year and Christmas. The event included a Secret Santa and an awards ceremony. There was alcohol and food.”

Gray also stated that: “The event was crowded and noisy such that some people working elsewhere in the No 10 building that evening heard significant levels of noise coming from what they characterised as a ‘party’ in the Press Office.”

On 19 May 2022 the Metropolitan Police concluded their investigation and found the event that took place on 18 December 2020 broke Covid-19 regulations.

Verdict 

It is hard to understand how the gatherings could have been within the rules, because any party would have been in breach of the guidance. 

We approached Boris Johnson’s office, No10 Press Office and the Cabinet Office to give them a chance to comment, but received no response.

Additional Note: Privileges Committee investigation:

On 21 April 2022, the House of Commons passed a motion tabled by Labour leader Keir Starmer calling for Boris Johnson, to be investigated by the Commons Privileges Committee for having potentially misled parliament over alleged breaches of lockdown rules in Downing Street.

The Privileges Committee (like the Standards Committee but unlike all other Commons committees) has the power to call for evidence – including Whatsapp messages, documents and photographs, including all the 300 or so photographs reported to have been taken by official Downing Street photographers at the illegal Downing Street parties. The Committee can also call witnesses. The Committee would probably want to speak to Sue Gray. If it is to carry out its job properly the Committee will have no choice but to interview Boris Johnson. 

Crucially, the Privileges Committee has the power to compel the attendance of an MP. If the Prime Minister refused to comply himself –  or forbade Sue Gray from giving evidence – he would find himself in contempt to the House of Commons.

If the Committee then decides that Boris Johnson deliberately misled MPs, the Prime Minister will also have been found to have committed a contempt of the Commons. It will then have to decide what kind of sanctions should be imposed on the Prime Minister, up to and including expulsion from the Commons. These sanctions could include suspension from the Commons. More likely the Privileges Committee would simply choose to order the Prime Minister to apologise to the Commons.

If the Committee does decide to impose sanctions on the Prime Minister, such sanctions would be voted on by the entire House of Commons. Any such motion would be amendable. It is easy to envisage circumstances where such an amendment would turn into an effective vote of no confidence in the prime Minister, this time involving the entire Commons. 

Erskine May (Paragraph 15-27) notes important precedents: “The Commons may treat the making of a deliberately misleading statement as a contempt. In 1963, the House resolved that in making a personal statement which contained words which they later admitted not to be true, a former Member had been guilty of a grave contempt. 

“In 2006, the Committee on Standards and Privileges concluded that a Minister who had inadvertently given a factually inaccurate answer in oral evidence to a select committee had not committed a contempt, but should have ensured that the transcript was corrected. The Committee recommended that they should apologise to the House for the error.”

In this case the crucial charge against Boris Johnson is that – to quote Keir Starmer – “the Prime Minister has been accused of repeatedly, deliberately and routinely misleading the House over parties held in Downing Street during lockdown. That is a serious allegation. If it is true, it amounts to contempt of Parliament.”

In an eloquent passage the Labour leader added: “The convention that Parliament must not be misled and that, in return, we do not accuse each other of lying are not curious quirks of this strange place but fundamental pillars on which our constitution is built, and they are observed wherever parliamentary democracy thrives. With them, our public debate is elevated. When Members assume good faith on behalf of our opponents, we can explore, test and interrogate our reasonable disagreements about how we achieve our common goals. Ultimately, no matter which Benches we sit on, no matter which Whip we follow, fundamentally we are all here for one reason: to advance the common goals of the nations, of the peoples, that make up our United Kingdom.”

Starmer went on: “When nations are divided, when they live in different worlds with their own truths and their own alternative facts, democracy is replaced by an obsession with defeating the other side. Those we disagree with become enemies. The hope of learning and adapting is lost. Politics becomes a blood sport rather than a quest to improve lives; a winner-takes-all politics where, inevitably, everyone loses out.”

Setting out the importance of the case he added: “Government Members know that the Prime Minister has stood before the House and said things that are not true, safe in the knowledge that he will not be accused of lying because he cannot be. He stood at the Dispatch Box and point-blank denied that rule breaking took place when it did, and as he did so he was hoping to gain extra protection from our good faith that no Prime Minister would ever deliberately mislead this House. He has used our faith and our conventions to cover up his misdeeds.”

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