Lies, Falsehoods and Misrepresentations from Boris Johnson to Keir Starmer

“Covid rules have been followed at all times”

Max Blain, Prime Minister’s Spokesperson

Facts

Max Blair, the Prime Minister’s Spokesperson, repeated the phrase “Covid rules have been followed at all times” or a version of it, five times during the lobby briefing on 1 December 2021.

The lobby briefing took place the day that the Daily Mirror splashed with allegations that a Christmas party had been held in Downing Street on 18 December 2020, in defiance of Covid restrictions. 

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. The Mirror quoted one source saying that “It was a Covid nightmare.” 

This account was confirmed by the Sue Gray report into lockdown breaking parties in Whitehall.

The Gray report suggests that, if anything, the account given in the Daily Mirror downplayed the riotous behaviour at the party on 18th December 2020. It concluded: “There was food and alcohol available which had been bought and brought in by staff. Some members of staff drank excessively. 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. 

“A cleaner who attended the room the next morning noted that there had been red wine spilled on one wall and on a number of boxes of photocopier paper. The event lasted for several hours, with varying levels of attendance throughout, including because officials left to attend official meetings. Attendance peaked during the awards ceremony. No 10 exit logs show a number of members of staff remaining in the office until after midnight.”

Two days earlier Boris Johnson had 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 stated: “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, the day on which the party was held, 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.” 

In the wake of the Daily Mirror revelation journalists questioned the Downing Street spokesperson Max Blain about breaches of Covid regulations. In response Max Blain repeatedly stated that Covid rules had been “followed at all times.”

We know this for certain because lobby correspondent Adam Bienkov took a transcript of the meeting. We publish it below. 

Bienkov wrote that “For weeks on end at the start of the Partygate scandal, Blain assured me, along with every other lobby reporter he faced, that no Covid rules had been broken in Downing Street during the pandemic.” 

Verdict

In light of the publication of the report it can be said for certain that government spokesman Max Blain lied to political journalists when he told them “Covid rules have been followed at all times.” This was a breach of the Civil Service code which states that civil servants must act with “integrity”, “honesty” and “objectivity.

The code also states that the civil servants must “set out the facts and relevant issues truthfully and correct any errors as soon as possible.”  It also insists that civil servants must not “deceive or knowingly mislead ministers, Parliament or others.” 

We repeatedly attempted to reach out to Max Blain by email and text message. No reply.

Additional Note

In the wake of this episode Max Blain issued a scant and limited apology

In the wake of the apology Jill Rutter, fellow of the Institute for Government, expressed her surprise that Blair had not lost his job. She told Civil Service World: “Amazingly, that apology was not followed by the spokesman’s  resignation or dismissal. It should have been…The prime minister’s official spokesman cannot double as a liar. Both the press and the public need to know that they can trust what is being said in the name of the prime minister and the government.”

Max Blain continued in his job for two more years, serving under both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. He finally left Downing Street at the start of 2024 to work for the giant corporate affairs firm Portland. Pr Week reported the move as follows: 

PR week (19.12.23)
Portland hires Downing Street adviser

“In his new role, Blain will advise Portland’s UK clients on all aspects of media and comms, including reputation building, integrated campaigning, media handling and crisis communications.”

Vikki Dean, chief executive of Portland, said: “I am absolutely thrilled that Max is joining our team. He brings unparalleled experience from No 10 and I know he’ll be a fantastic adviser to our clients.”

Blain added: “Portland has an exciting roster of top-tier clients, a stellar reputation and a brilliant team so I couldn’t be happier to be joining in the New Year as they look to grow the business even further.”

Client Journalism

No journalist criticised Portland for hiring proven liar Max Blain, while Sky deputy political editor Sam Coates praised his “heroic three years in the job”.

Many political journalists attended his leaving party at the Old Shades pub near Trafalgar Square on February 1st 2024. According to the Politico news sheet, the guests included the political editor of the Financial Times George Parker, Telegraph political editor Ben Riley-Smith, Mail political editor Jason Groves, GB News political editor as well as “swathes” of other journalists. There was a strong turn out from Downing Street, including National Security Adviser John Bew and “basically the entire number ten press office.” 

This party explains a great deal about the chasm which today divides the political/media class at Westminster and the rest of the country. A doctor caught falsifying records will get struck off, a deceitful military officer would face court-martialled, a businessman who gets caught cheating faces fraud charges. In a court of law perjury is punishable by jail. 

But this does not apply to politicians and the press. Here were the cream of Britain’s political press corps celebrating the career of somebody who had lied to them. I guess the access and inside information Blain was able to supply to journalists meant that it became professionally essential to turn a blind eye to the fact that the man was a liar. 

But there is a dark problem here. The press is supposed to search out the truth and hold the government to account. Instead political reporters occupy an alternative moral universe where truth is fiction and fiction is fact. This is a betrayal of journalism.

As for Max Blain, I do understand that working for a shameless and habitual liar like Boris Johnson brought with it insoluble problems. But Blain, and the other Downing Street officials, had a duty to confront a bent Prime Minister rather than lie on his behalf. The Civil Service code demands that civil servants such as Blain should “set out any facts and relevant issues truthfully, and correct any errors as soon as possible” while stating that “you must not deceive or knowingly mislead ministers, Parliament or others.”  It’s not just Blain who bears the blame. The ultimate responsibility lies with Simon Case, a moral nullity who disgraces the post of Cabinet Secretary. 

Boris Johnson could only get away with his lies for as long as he did because of the ready collaboration of journalists who ought to invigilate deceit, and civil servants, who have a duty to resist it. 

Published 28 Jun 2024
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