Boris Johnson has refused to deny that he commented that a leaving event "was the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now".
The former Prime Minister faced a televised grilling by MPs over claims he knowingly misled Parliament over partygate, which could lead to him losing his seat. He was questioned by MPs for almost three-and-a-half hours by the Commons Privileges Committee over his denials that No 10 parties during the pandemic broke lockdown rules.
Johnson swore to tell the truth on the bible before issuing an apology and adding: “I’m here to say to you hand on heart, I did not lie to the House." He also said that it "never occurred" to him that the birthday party event, at which he was fined by the Met, was not in compliance with the rules. If he is found to have deliberately misled the House then he could be suspended as a MP, potentially leading to a by-election in his west London constituency.
Follow NationalWorld's live blog below, as our writers bring you the latest news, reaction and analysis as Boris Johnson is quizzed over partygate by the Privileges Committee.
Johnson 'joked event was probably the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now'
Boris Johnson failed to deny he said "it was probably the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now" at Cleo Watson's leaving doo. When asked by Sir Bernard Jenkin, he said "it was unlikely" he said that but he couldn't remember. That comment was taken by the Committee on oath of truth, Sir Bernard reminds Johnson.
Welcome to NationalWorld's live blog
Welcome to NationalWorld's live coverage of Boris Johnson's evidence to the Privileges Committe. He faces a televised grilling by MPs investigating claims he knowingly misled Parliament over partygate.
The former prime minister is expected to be questioned for around four hours by the Commons Privileges Committee, from 2pm onwards, over his denials of No 10 parties during the pandemic in violation of lockdown rules.
If he is found to have deliberately misled the House then he could be suspended as a MP, potentially leading to a by-election in his west London constituency.
Ahead of the hearing, Johnson acknowledged some of the statements he made when the story first broke at the end of 2021 had been wrong, but insisted they had not been “intentionally or recklessly” misleading.
He said claims no rules or guidelines had been broken and that there had been no parties had been made “in good faith” based on assurances he had been given by his advisers, including former No 10 communications director Jack Doyle.
However an interim report by committee early this month noted Mr Johnson had been present at a series of gatherings when it would have been “obvious” to him that social distancing guidelines had been breached. It released internal Downing Street messages showing advisers “struggling” to explain how such conduct was within the rules.
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Today's key timings
It would be a busy day in politics even without Johnson's evidence, however the Privileges Committee is undoubtedly the box office draw. However, there are a number of other important political events happening today, including the vote on the Windsor Framework, which Johnson has said he will vote against. These are:
10.30am the Brexiteer European Research Group is expected to meet to discuss the Stormont Brake vote - which forms part of the Windsor Framework.
12noon PMQs - expect Keir Starmer to ask Rishi Sunak about partygate, as the current PM received a fixed penalty notice for breaching Covid rules like Boris Johnson.
2pm Get out the popcorn - Boris Johnson appears in front of the Privileges Committee. You can watch that on this live blog. His evidence is expected to go on for four hours.
2.30pm Stormont Brake vote - both Johnson and former PM Liz Truss have said they will vote against Sunak's Windsor Framework, which is designed to solve issues with the Northern Ireland protocol.
Who is on the Privileges Committee?
Labour grandee Harriet Harman is chair of the Privileges Committee. In Parliament since 1982, she is the longest-standing female MP and a former Cabinet minister.
Harman, due to stand down at the next general election, has long been an outspoken advocate for equality in politics and a strong feminist. She has served in numerous government roles and senior positions in Labour under a succession of leaders, and also served as deputy leader.
Sir Bernard Jenkin is another veteran MP on the committee. A Conservative, he has been in Parliament since 1992.
A veteran Tory Eurosceptic and chairman of the powerful Liaison Committee, he was a critic of Johnson’s handling of the Chris Pincher affair - which eventually led to the former PM stepping down - and is an often vocal voice from the backbenches.
Sir Charles Walker, another member of the committee, is standing down at the next election. Another independently minded Conservative backbencher, he made headlines last year for his emotional criticism of the chaos that engulfed the final days of the Truss administration.
Conservative MP Andy Carter, who was elected in 2019 to represent Warrington South, is another member of the committee. Alberto Costa, elected in 2015 for South Leicestershire, is the final Tory member of the committee.
Labour’s Yvonne Fovargue, an MP since 2010, has held a number of shadow ministerial roles during her time in Parliament. She has been a member of the committee since September 2021.
Allan Dorans is the sole SNP member. An MP since 2019, he represents Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock.
Privileges Committee publishes evidence ahead of hearing
The Privileges Committee has published a tranche of evidence ahead of this afternoon's hearing. And some of it is potentially not good news for Boris Johnson.
It includes that former principal private secretary Martin Reynolds warned Johnson against claiming that all Covid guidance had been followed, however he went ahead and denied that rules had been broken at PMQs.
Reynolds wrote that he recalled asking Johnson about a proposed line to say during PMQs “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,” the former adviser said.
“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 8 December 2021, Johnson went on to tell the Commons “the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times”.
More evidence looking bad for Johnson
Boris Johnson's defence today will be that he unknowingly misled Parliament. As in, even though he told Parliament that guidance was being followed, when it wasn't, he made those statements in good faith on the basis of advice of officials. Remember, the Privileges Committee has to decide that Johnson knowingly misled Parliament.
However, as well as Martin Reynolds' evidence, other aides and officials appear to be contradicting this claim. Cabinet Secretary Simon Case told the inquiry they did not give Johnson assurances that the guidance was always followed.
Case also said he did not advise that no parties were held in Downing Street, and was not aware of others telling the then-prime minister that.
Jack Doyle, who was Johnson’s communications chief when the partygate story broke, said he “believed no rules were broken”. But asked whether he told Johnson “Covid guidance” was followed at all times, Doyle said: “No.”
Doyle highlighted the distinction between the rules that were in force and the guidelines, but added that No 10 “is an old building with limited space” and could not say they were complied with at all times.
Johnson’s former communications chief, Lee Cain, said it would have been “highly unusual” for him not to have raised his concerns with the then-prime minister about a mid-lockdown garden party in No 10.
Cain said he could not remember if he personally had a conversation with Johnson about it, but added that he told senior aide Dominic Cummings about his concerns over the May 20 2020 gathering.
Evidence published by the committee shows that Cain initially raised his doubts about the event in response to an infamous email from Reynolds inviting staff to the “socially distanced drinks” and asking them to “bring your own booze”.
Key dates of 2020 Downing Street garden party scandal
23 March 2020 - A strict national lockdown is introduced in the UK to combat Covid-19. People were ordered to stay at home and not mix socially. You could only leave your home for an hour per day to exercise or undertake essential tasks, like buying food.
10 May - People are allowed to go back to work if they are unable to work from home. However, they are told to avoid using public transport.
13 May - People were permitted to leave home to meet one other person outdoors.
15 May - Around 20 staff - including Boris and Carrie Johnson, as well as Dominic Cummings - attend the Downing Street garden for an event that included cheese and wine. It came just hours after a press conference hosted by then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock urged the public to “stay at home as much as is possible” and “stick with the rules”. Number 10 denies a social gathering took place, calling it a “work meeting” - The Guardian publishes a photo of the alleged party.
20 May - Emails seen by ITV News in January 2022 show the Prime Minister’s principal private secretary Martin Reynolds invited 100 members of staff to “socially distanced drinks in the No10 garden”. Reynolds encouraged those attending to “bring your own booze”. Downing Street refuses to comment. 55 minutes before the event is believed to have begun, Cabinet Minister Oliver Dowden tells the public at a press conference to “limit contact with other people” and said: “You can meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor, public place — provided that you stay two meters apart”.
18 June - Gathering in the Cabinet Office, 70 Whitehall on the departure of a No 10 private secretary.
19 June - Gathering in Cabinet room in No 10 Downing Street for Boris Johnson’s birthday. Up to 30 people were there to present the Prime Minister with a cake and sing ‘happy birthday’, according to ITV News. The Government says the gathering was brief and the PM was only there "for less than 10 minutes”. It’s this event Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak were fined for by the Met Police.
Downing Street Christmas party scandal
Here’s a timeline of the key events in the Downing Street Christmas party scandal:
13 November 2020 - gathering in No 10 Downing Street flat and a gathering in No 10 Downing Street on the departure of a special adviser. Boris Johnson was said to have started this party in the Sunday Times on 17 April. Photos have since emerged of Mr Johnson raising a glass at this gathering.
27 November - gathering in No 10 Downing Street on the departure of a special adviser.
10 December - London is in tier two of the Government’s three-tier Covid-19 system. Social mixing between households is banned indoors but the Department for Education holds a Christmas party in its cafe. The department apologises for event when it is revealed by the Daily Mirror.
16 December - A new Covid-19 variant (Alpha, or the ‘Kent variant’) sees London move to tier three restrictions - the highest level at the time. The rules ban different households from mixing indoors and say people should remain at home.
17 December - three incidents reported in Sue Gray’s report which details gathering in the Cabinet Office 70 Whitehall held an online Christmas quiz for the Cabinet Secretary’s private office and departures of senior officials.
18 December - Downing Street staff are believed to have held a Christmas party, with reports that dozens of people were at the event. Some attendees were said to have worn festive jumpers and exchanged Secret Santa gifts.
22 December - The Prime Minister’s then-press secretary Allegra Stratton is filmed at a mock press conference answering questions about a Downing Street Christmas party. The footage did not emerge until 7 December 2021.
4 January 2021 - Boris Johnson announces third national lockdown after a rapid rise in Covid cases threatens to overwhelm the NHS after thousands of hospital admissions.
14 January - Gathering at No 10 Downing Street to mark the departure of two No 10 private secretaries.
16 April - Two separate gatherings take place at No 10 Downing Street on the departure of two No 10 officials.
How the Downing Street Christmas party allegations emerged
1 December 2021 - The Daily Mirror breaks the story that numerous 2020 Christmas parties took place, saying “officials knocked back glasses of wine during a Christmas quiz and a Secret Santa while the rest of the country was forced to stay at home”. At PMQs that day, the Prime Minister insists “all guidance was followed completely”.
2 December - Business Minister George Freeman says: “I can absolutely assure you that No 10 staff followed the guidance”.
3 December - Tory chairman Oliver Dowden says: “I have...been assured by what the Prime Minister has said, which is that the rules at all times were obeyed in Downing Street”.
4 December - The Metropolitan Police says it’s considering opening an investigation into the Downing Street Christmas party and an earlier gathering in November 2020.
5 December - Deputy PM Dominic Raab insists he did not know the truth of reports based on “unsubstantiated claims all on the basis of anonymous sources” and claimed police “don’t normally look back and investigate things that have taken place a year ago”.
6 December - Policing Minister Kit Malthouse says: “I asked the question: ‘Were all the regulations complied with?’ I was reassured they were, I have to take that at face value. That’s absolutely what I’m sure is the case; it’s for others if they want to decide to take it further”.
7 December - Johnson says: “I am satisfied myself that the guidelines were followed at all times.” However, later that day the footage from 2020 of Allegra Stratton joking about the alleged party is leaked to ITV News. Downing Street continues to deny that the party took place, saying: “There was no Christmas party. Covid rules have been followed at all times”
8 December - At a raucous PMQs, the PM apologises for the video clip but not for the party itself. He said he’d been assured that there was no party and no Covid rules were broken. Johnson promises to launch an internal review into what happened in December 2020. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer says the allegations have undermined the PM’s credibility. The SNP becomes the first opposition party to call for Johnson’s resignation.
The Met Police announces it will not carry out an investigation due to an “absence of evidence” to launch a investigation into the claims. It had previously said that Covid breaches would not be investigated “retroactively”
11 December - Allegations of a 25 November 2020 gathering emerge in The Times. According to the report, around two dozen civil servants who worked on the Autumn Spending Review attended drinks. The Treasury says there were “impromptu drinks around desks” and that then Chancellor Rishi Sunak was not in attendance.
12 December - Boris Johnson is pictured hosting a Downing Street Christmas quiz on 15 December 2020. Downing Street said the Prime Minister had “briefly” taken part “virtually” in the quiz. He was pictured in close proximity to two colleagues despite social mixing restrictions being in place.
15 December - Former Conservative London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey resigns from his role in the London Assembly, after images emerge of a “raucous” party which took place at Conservative Party headquarters on 14 December 2020.
25 January 2022 - The Met announces it will open an investigation into the Downing Street parties. Part of the investigation sees questionnaires given to Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and dozens of others.
31 January - Sue Gray publishes redacted report into Partygate scandal. It describes "failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No 10 and the Cabinet Office" and says "some of the events should not have been allowed to take place".
5 February - Five key Downing Street aides resign, including chief of staff Dan Rosenfield, principal private secretary Martin Reynolds and director of communications Jack Doyle. All three had been implicated in Partygate.
29 March - Police issue 20 fixed penalty notices but do not say how many people have been given them, nor who these people are. Cabinet Office says: “It would not be appropriate to comment [on them] while the Met Police’s investigation is ongoing”.
12 April - Police issue a further 30 fines. A 10 Downing Street spokesperson confirms Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak are among those to have received FPNs. The PM’s wife, Carrie Johnson, also reveals she’s been fined.
PMQs is starting
A break from the focus on Boris Johnson - Rishi Sunak is taking PMQs in the House of Commons - which you can watch live on this page. I wonder if the current Prime Minister would quite like Johnson to have his political career knocked down by the Privileges Committee. Johnson after all has said he would vote against Sunak's Windsor framework.