Boris Johnson has described new claims that he broke Covid lockdown rules as “bizarre and unacceptable” - as it emerged the Cabinet Office had referred the allegations to the police.
The Times - which broke the original story - reports that the former Prime Minister's ministerial diary revealed friends visited him at Chequers during the height of the pandemic. Chequers, in Buckinghamshire, is the official country residence of the UK's sitting PM. Other breaches at Downing Street have been reported.
Why have these claims come to light?
The visits were revealed during preparations for the upcoming public inquiry into the pandemic. Johnson has received financial support from the taxpayer to cover his legal bills ahead of the inquiry - meaning the lawyers working on his behalf answer to the Cabinet Office. The Times says it therefore got to see the diary and was sufficiently concerned about some of the content that it got in touch with the police.
The Metropolitan and Thames Valley forces have since confirmed they’re assessing “potential breaches of the health protection regulations between June 2020 and May 2021.”
The Commons privileges committee has also been informed. It’s currently carrying out its own investigation into the ‘Partygate’ scandal, examining whether Johnson deliberately misled Parliament.
In a March hearing which lasted more than three hours, the former Prime Minister was grilled by MPs over what he knew about parties held at Downing Street - as well as photos taken with bottles of alcohol and in breach of social distancing rules - and on what he told the House of Commons when news of gatherings began to emerge. Johnson insisted in his evidence that he “hand on heart” did not lie to Parliament, arguing that he told MPs “no rules had been broken” at Number 10, because he genuinely believed that to be the case.
If the committee - made up of four Conservative MPs, two Labour and one SNP - finds the former PM misled Parliament, he could face a suspension - or even be forced to fight for his place as MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip through a by-election. Johnson denies the allegation.
What has the ex-PM said?
Boris Johnson’s office says his lawyers have written to police to “explain in detail why the Cabinet Office is entirely wrong in its assertions”.
A statement read: “No contact was made with Mr Johnson before these incorrect allegations were made both to the police and to the Privileges Committee. This is both bizarre and unacceptable.”
“For whatever political purpose, it is plain that a last-ditch attempt is being made to lengthen the Privileges Committee investigation as it was coming to a conclusion and to undermine Mr Johnson.”
What about the Cabinet Office?
The Cabinet Office said: “Information came to light during the process of preparing evidence for submission to the Covid inquiry. It was identified as part of the normal disclosure review of potentially relevant documents being undertaken by the legal team for inquiry witnesses.”
“In line with obligations in the Civil Service Code, this material has been passed to the relevant authorities and it is now a matter for them.”
How have opposition parties reacted?
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “These new allegations are for the police to examine but the Government must explain who else knew at the time and why this has only now come to light.”
“The public will be shocked that they’re still paying Boris Johnson’s legal bills while he rakes in millions from speaking gigs, all because Rishi Sunak is too weak to put a stop to it.”
The Liberal Democrats called on the former PM to stand down as an MP. Their deputy leader Daisy Cooper said that Johnson should "do the decent thing and consider his position".
Meanwhile Lindsay Jackson, spokeswoman for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, criticised Johnson in light of the new allegations of Covid breaches. The campaign group was highly critical of the former PM during the Partygate scandal.
She said: “These revelations make a grim mockery of Boris Johnson’s claims that he didn’t break his own lockdown rules. He lied when he said to our faces that he’d done ‘all he could’ to protect our loved ones, he lied again when he said the rules hadn’t been broken in No 10, and he’s lied over and over again since then when he’s denied it.”
“If he had any respect he’d quietly step back from public life and reflect on the pain and suffering he has inflicted on so many.”