“I have been repeatedly assured that the rules were not broken. I repeat that I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken.”

Boris Johnson, Prime Minister’s Questions

December 7, 2021

Facts

Boris Johnson made the above remarks to Parliament after ITV released a video of a mock press conference from 22 December 2020, in which Allegra Stratton and other Downing Street staff made joking references to a Christmas gathering at 10 Downing Street that took place four days earlier.

 BBC News reported that the event had "several dozen" attendees and that "party games were played, food and drink were served, and the party went on past midnight". At the time of the alleged party, London was under COVID-19 tier 3 lockdown restrictions, which banned indoor gatherings of more than six people.

According to the Sue Gray report into Downing Street parties: “On 18 December 2020 a gathering lasting several hours took place in the No 10 Press Office. Between 20 and 45 individuals attended over the course of the evening to celebrate the end of year and Christmas. The event included a Secret Santa and an awards ceremony. There was alcohol and food.”

Gray also stated that: “The event was crowded and noisy such that some people working elsewhere in the No 10 building that evening heard significant levels of noise coming from what they characterised as a ‘party’ in the Press Office.”

On 19 May 2022 the Metropolitan Police concluded their investigation and found the event that took place on 18 December 2020 broke Covid-19 regulations.

Verdict

Note that the Prime Minister did not say that rules had not been broken. He said that he had been “repeatedly assured” that the rules were not broken. He did not say, however, who gave him these assurances, which turned out to be completely false. Nor did he state when they were given. There has been no suggestion that the people who gave him such disastrously false information to Parliament have been punished or even rebuked. 

This raises the question: was Johnson ever given such assurances? With most Prime Ministers this would be an outrageous question. Given Boris Johnson’s record of habitual deceit and lies, it is a question which must be asked. His claim that “I have been repeatedly assured that the rules were not broken” should therefore be treated with scepticism. It seems certain that the Privileges Committee investigation (see Special Note below) will question the Prime Minister on this point.

We approached Boris Johnson's office, No10 Press Office and the Cabinet Office to give them a chance to comment, but received no response.

Additional Note: Privileges Committee investigation:

On 21 April 2022, the House of Commons passed a motion tabled by Labour leader Keir Starmer calling for Boris Johnson, to be investigated by the Commons Privileges Committee for having potentially misled parliament over alleged breaches of lockdown rules in Downing Street.

The Privileges Committee (like the Standards Committee but unlike all other Commons committees) has the power to call for evidence – including Whatsapp messages, documents and photographs, including all the 300 or so photographs reported to have been taken by official Downing Street photographers at the illegal Downing Street parties. The Committee can also call witnesses. The Committee would probably want to speak to Sue Gray. If it is to carry out its job properly the Committee will have no choice but to interview Boris Johnson. 

Crucially, the Privileges Committee has the power to compel the attendance of an MP. If the Prime Minister refused to comply himself -  or forbade Sue Gray from giving evidence - he would find himself in contempt to the House of Commons.

If the Committee then decides that Boris Johnson deliberately misled MPs, the Prime Minister will also have been found to have committed a contempt of the Commons. It will then have to decide what kind of sanctions should be imposed on the Prime Minister, up to and including expulsion from the Commons. These sanctions could include suspension from the Commons. More likely the Privileges Committee would simply choose to order the Prime Minister to apologise to the Commons.

If the Committee does decide to impose sanctions on the Prime Minister, such sanctions would be voted on by the entire House of Commons. Any such motion would be amendable. It is easy to envisage circumstances where such an amendment would turn into an effective vote of no confidence in the prime Minister, this time involving the entire Commons. 

Erskine May (Paragraph 15-27) notes important precedents: “The Commons may treat the making of a deliberately misleading statement as a contempt. In 1963, the House resolved that in making a personal statement which contained words which they later admitted not to be true, a former Member had been guilty of a grave contempt. 

“In 2006, the Committee on Standards and Privileges concluded that a Minister who had inadvertently given a factually inaccurate answer in oral evidence to a select committee had not committed a contempt, but should have ensured that the transcript was corrected. The Committee recommended that they should apologise to the House for the error.”

In this case the crucial charge against Boris Johnson is that - to quote Keir Starmer – “the Prime Minister has been accused of repeatedly, deliberately and routinely misleading the House over parties held in Downing Street during lockdown. That is a serious allegation. If it is true, it amounts to contempt of Parliament.”

In an eloquent passage the Labour leader added: “The convention that Parliament must not be misled and that, in return, we do not accuse each other of lying are not curious quirks of this strange place but fundamental pillars on which our constitution is built, and they are observed wherever parliamentary democracy thrives. With them, our public debate is elevated. When Members assume good faith on behalf of our opponents, we can explore, test and interrogate our reasonable disagreements about how we achieve our common goals. Ultimately, no matter which Benches we sit on, no matter which Whip we follow, fundamentally we are all here for one reason: to advance the common goals of the nations, of the peoples, that make up our United Kingdom.”

Starmer went on: “When nations are divided, when they live in different worlds with their own truths and their own alternative facts, democracy is replaced by an obsession with defeating the other side. Those we disagree with become enemies. The hope of learning and adapting is lost. Politics becomes a blood sport rather than a quest to improve lives; a winner-takes-all politics where, inevitably, everyone loses out.”

Setting out the importance of the case he added: “Government Members know that the Prime Minister has stood before the House and said things that are not true, safe in the knowledge that he will not be accused of lying because he cannot be. He stood at the Dispatch Box and point-blank denied that rule breaking took place when it did, and as he did so he was hoping to gain extra protection from our good faith that no Prime Minister would ever deliberately mislead this House. He has used our faith and our conventions to cover up his misdeeds.”

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