Boris Johnson has failed to deny he said he was at the “most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK” while attending an event at Number 10 - as he fiercely argues that he did not lie to Parliament over partygate.
When asked about the comments he was alleged to have made on 27 November 2020, Johnson said it was “unlikely” he would have said such a thing. “I don’t remember saying those words,” he remarked. “I think it unlikely that I would have said those words, given that my memory of the event is that it was a clutch of people around that table. I don’t remember people being four or five deep.”
It came as the former Prime Minister was grilled by the Privileges Committee as it seeks to determine whether or not he lied to Parliament when he repeatedly stated during PMQs that “no rules had been broken” at Downing Street during the coronavirus pandemic. Johnson has insisted “hand on heart” that he did not lie, arguing that all of his statements concerning partygate were “made in good faith and on the basis of what I honestly knew and believed at the time.”
A series of pictures of Johnson were pulled up during the hearing, in which he can be seen raising a glass or in a room where people are not socially distancing. The Privileges Committee has argued that in those moments, it would have been “obvious” to the former Prime Minister that guidance was not being complied with.
But Johnson has argued that these events were “essential” for work purposes, insisting that anyone who claimed there was “partying in lockdown” in Number 10 “simply do not know what they are talking about”. He added: “People who say that the event was a purely social gathering are quite wrong.”
He spoke passionately as he went on: “It seems to be the view of the committee and sadly many members of the public that [these pictures] show me attending rule-breaking parties where no one was socially distancing. They show nothing of the kind.
“They show me giving a few words of thanks at a work event for a departing colleague. They show me with my red box passing on the way to another meeting or heading back into my flat to carry on working, often late into the night. They show a few people standing together - as permitted by the guidance - where full social distancing is not possible and where mitigating measures are taken. They show events which I was never fined for attending.”
He also argued that some of the pictures may show a lack of social distancing because the size of Number 10 made it difficult to do so - even if staff followed rules and guidance “to the best of our ability”. Johnson described the government building as a “cramped, narrow, 18th century townhouse”, where people “had no choice but to meet day in, day out, seven days a week in an unrelenting battle against Covid.”
“We avoided physical contact,” he said. “We gave way to each other in the corridors and on the stairs. We gave each other as wide a berth as we could. But it would have been impossible to have had a drill sergeant ensuring we were 2m apart at all times.”
When pressed on whether these gatherings were necessary if social distancing was a difficulty, the Uxbridge and South Ruislip MP described them as “not only reasonably necessary” but also “essential for work purposes.” He also admitted that the guidance “was not rigidly followed” in No10.
Referencing Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings’ departures from Downing Street, Johnson said they had left their jobs “in very, very difficult and challenging circumstances”, and that “it was necessary to steady the ship, it was necessary to show that there was no rancour, that the business of the government was being carried on – that’s what we had to do, that’s what I had to do”.
Speaking on so-called ‘leaving dos’ for other staff members, he continued: “I will believe until the day I die that it was my job to thank staff for what they had done, especially during a crisis like Covid, which kept coming back, which seemed to have no end and where people’s morale did, I’m afraid, begin to sink.”
He was then asked if several bottles of alcohol were necessary for a work event, to which he replied: “It’s customary to say farewell to people in this country with a toast”.
Things became particularly tense when Johnson was asked whether he believed exceptions to the workplace rules and social distancing guidelines applied to Number 10 but not to hospitals and care homes. “Of course not,” the former Prime Minister responded.
Johnson’s main argument was essentially that he implicity believed he was following guidance - and that all gatherings he attended were for work. He did admit however that some of the events may have looked differently to members of the public, such as the garden party in June 2020.
He said: “I tried to put myself in the place of somebody, a member of the public, looking over the garden wall and seeing that and I had to accept that even though it was – I believe – within the guidance and within the rules, I have to accept that members of the public looking at it would have thought, ‘that looks to me like something that he’s not allowing us to do’. And I felt that very keenly, in retrospect. But I didn’t feel it at the time.”
It has been accepted that Johnson misled Parliament, but the Privileges Committee will now consider whether it believes he did this intentionally or not. Depending on its decision, Johnson could face a variety of outcomes, ranging from no action, to a written apology, to a docking of salary.
The most serious sanction the former Prime Minister could face would be a suspension from Parliament, which, if he is suspended for 10 or more sitting days, or 14 calendar days, could trigger a recall petition. This means he could lose his seat as an MP.