Boris Johnson admits Covid rules were ‘extremely complex’
Boris Johnson has admitted the Covid rules he helped design were “extremely complex”, but said senior Downing Street aides assured him they were not broken during partygate gatherings.
The former prime minister faces a grilling before the Commons Privileges Committee on Wednesday over whether he misled Parliament over lockdown-breaking parties, with his parliamentary career potentially at risk.
A 52-page document from the Johnson camp was published on Tuesday, laying out his defence. It cites evidence that a string of Number 10 figures had assured him rules were not broken before he issued denials.
However, it also reveals that he was privately warned by one of his top civil servants that it could be unrealistic to claim all guidance had been followed.
Elsewhere in the dossier, Mr Johnson concedes that the Covid rules “were necessarily extremely complex, covering all manner of activities relevant to daily life”.
The committee’s seven MPs are preparing to interrogate Mr Johnson about how he could not have realised the partygate gatherings broke lockdown despite signing off the rules himself.
In the end, the Metropolitan Police issued 126 fines for Covid law breaches to 83 people over eight events in government buildings – proof that rules had been broken.
The MPs are also expected to focus on whether he updated Parliament quickly enough when evidence mounted that his blanket denials of wrongdoing in Downing Street were incorrect.
The issue in question is not whether Mr Johnson made inaccurate statements on parytgate to MPs, but whether he did so knowingly – an allegation he has categorically denied.
Ahead of the 2pm hearing, which could last up to four hours, the former prime minister issued a new statement insisting that the committee had failed to prove the core allegation.
He said: “I look forward very much to the committee session. I believe that the evidence conclusively shows that I did not knowingly or recklessly mislead Parliament. The committee has produced not a shred of evidence to show that I have.”
If the committee concludes that Mr Johnson misled MPs, proposes that he is suspended from the Commons for 10 or more days and MPs vote it through, a by-election can be triggered in his seat.
The seven MPs on the committee, led by the Labour grandee Harriet Harman, have declined to give public comments, saving their interventions for the session, which will be televised live.
Mr Johnson will be made to swear an oath to tell the truth on a King James Bible before giving his evidence.
The scale of preparation by the former prime minister – which has lasted 20 to 30 hours, according to one estimate shared with The Telegraph – speaks to the political risk the hearing involves.
The document released on Tuesday gives a clear indication of how Mr Johnson intends to fight the latest front in the partygate saga, which contributed to his ousting as prime minister last year.
In it, Mr Johnson claims Jack Doyle, his director of communications, had told him a Christmas press office event where alcohol was drunk and Secret Santa gifts exchanged “was within the rules”.
He also quoted Mr Doyle writing in a WhatsApp message later after new claims emerged about the event that “I think you can say ‘I’ve been assured there was no party and no rules were broken.’”
Both remarks were about a press office event on Dec 18, 2020. It was later deemed to have broken Covid laws by police, with some fines handed out.
Mr Johnson argued that he relied on the denials from Mr Doyle and other figures in Downing Street for his insistence in the Commons that no rules had been broken.
Mr Doyle, who is no longer in Government, issued no public comment in response on Tuesday.
Mr Johnson argued of the committee’s work: “There is not a single document that indicates that I received any warning or advice that any event broke or may have broken the rules or guidance.
“In fact, the evidence before the committee demonstrates that those working at Number 10 at the time shared my honest belief that the rules and guidance were being followed.”
However, the defence was complicated by new evidence from Martin Reynolds, who was Mr Johnson’s principal private secretary, about advice he gave before a Prime Minister’s Questions session on Dec 8, 2021.
Mr Reynolds recalled that he “questioned whether it was realistic to argue that all guidance had been followed at all times, given the nature of the working environment in Number 10”, referring to a discussion with Mr Johnson.
The former prime minister said he did “not recall this conversation”. He said that a reference to guidance was, in the end, removed from his opening statement for PMQs.