Lies, Falsehoods and Misrepresentations from Boris Johnson to Rishi Sunak

‎”I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing No. 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures? I can understand how infuriating it must be…I was also furious to see that clip.”

Boris Johnson, Prime Ministers Questions

Facts

Boris Johnson was apologising to MPs after the publication of footage showing Number 10 officials joking and laughing about a Downing Street Christmas party that took place on Friday 18th December 2020.

On 30 November 2020 Covid Guidance was published that said: “Although there are exemptions for work purposes, you must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted by the rules in your tier.”

On 16 December 2020, London was moved to Tier 3. Indoor gatherings of two or more people from different households continued to be prohibited. Social distancing remained the rule at work, with offices advised “to maintain social distancing guidelines (2m, or 1m with risk mitigation where 2m is not viable), wherever possible, including while arriving at and departing from work, while in work and when travelling between sites”. The Christmas party guidance issued on the 30 November 2020 remained unchanged.  

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

Note Johnson’s language. By saying that “I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing No. 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures” he was washing his hands of personal responsibility for the Christmas Party. The implication was that he was as shocked as the general public the publication of footage showing Number 10 officials joking and laughing about a Downing Street Christmas party and shared their anger.  The nation was later to learn that Johnson had been present at many such parties – though not, as happens, on the party on the 18th.

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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