5 Big Moments From Boris Johnson's Tetchy Partygate Inquiry Hearing

The ex-prime minister signalled he would reject the MPs' conclusions if they did not go his way.
Boris Johnson giving evidence to the privileges committee at the House of Commons, London.
Boris Johnson giving evidence to the privileges committee at the House of Commons, London.
House of Commons/UK Parliament via PA Wire/PA Images

Boris Johnson has been grilled by MPs over whether he misled the Commons with his denials about partygate – and their conclusions could decide the former prime minster’s political future.

In a televised evidence session that included a series of short-tempered exchanges, the privileges committee picked apart Johnson’s 52-page defence dossier and public statements on Downing Street rule-breaking. Here are five key moments.

1. Leaving drinks event was “essential”

In the first eyebrow-raising comment, Johnson was shown a picture of himself surrounded by colleagues and drinks during a leaving-do for communications director Lee Cain.

The pictures, widely circulated after featuring in Sue Gray’s report, showed the then-prime minister raising a glass while surrounded by colleagues and bottles of wine on November 13 2020, days after ordering England’s second national lockdown.

Johnson argued No 10 staff cannot have an “invisible electrified fence around them”.

“They will occasionally drift into each other’s orbit,” he said, accepting that “perfect social distancing is not being observed” in the image but denied it was in breach of the guidance.

In a statement that will shock many, he added: “I believe it was absolutely essential for work purposes.”

2. “If anybody thinks I was partying, they are completely wrong.”

There was a flash of fury when Johnson insisted that the leaving-do for Cain “was not a party” – despite police fines being handed out for the pandemic-era event.

Asked whether his advice to other organisations during the coronavirus pandemic would have been that leaving-dos were acceptable, Johnson replied: “I understand that people looking at that photograph will think it looks like a social event.

“It was not a social event. If anybody thinks I was partying during lockdown, they are completely wrong. That was not a party.”

3. Johnson loses his cool over “not taking proper advice”

A key part of Johnson’s defence is that he took assurances from advisers that rules had been complied with – but committee members appeared to take a dim view of the argument.

Bernard Jenkin, a Tory member of the committee, questioned whether the ex-PM sought “proper advice” about the party allegations, as the advice had come from members of his communications team, Jack Doyle and James Slack, rather than lawyers or senior Whitehall officials.

Jenkin said that if there was “the most thinnest scintilla of doubt about it, well you’d want to copperplate your assurances by taking proper advice – and I put it to you, Mr Johnson, that you did not take proper advice”.

Johnson replied: “This is complete nonsense, I mean, complete nonsense.

“I asked the relevant people. They were senior people. They had been working very hard.”

He said it was “wrong” to suggest he had not asked Cabinet Secretary Simon Case for counsel as he had tasked him with conducting a civil service investigation, which was later taken over by Sue Gray.

Harriet Harman, the Labour chair of the Tory-majority committee, asked whether he could see why they were “a bit dismayed about the flimsy nature” of the assurances.

4. “We didn’t touch each other’s pens” and “imperfect social distancing”

Johnson’s language also came under scrutiny.

Harman picked up on the Johnson phrase that “perfect social distancing is not being observed”. Harman asked: “What is the notion of an imperfect social distancing?”

In reply, Johnson blamed “lots of higgledy piggledy corridors where it wasn’t always easy to maintain perfect social distancing”.

Johnson also said No 10 staff followed measures including avoiding physical contact and “we didn’t touch each other’s pens, we didn’t pass stuff to each other if we could possibly avoid it”.

But Harman responded sharply: “Presumably people were passing drinks to each other because we have seen the picture.”

5. Will he accept a guilty verdict?

Towards the end, Johnson said he would find it “unfair and wrong” to conclude he had misled parliament deliberately – signalling he would reject their conclusions if they did not go his way.

The former prime minister said: “I think if this committee were to find me in contempt of parliament – having come and done something so utterly insane and contrary to my beliefs and my principles as to come here, to come to parliament and wittingly lie – I think that would be not only unfair, I think it would be wrong.”

Johnson could be suspended and face a possible by-election if he is found to have committed a contempt of parliament with his denials of rule-breaking to MPs.


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