“No, but I’m sure whatever happened the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times”

Boris Johnson, Prime Minister’s Questions

December 7, 2021

Facts

Labour MP Catherine West asked Boris Johnson “Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether there was a party in Downing Street on 13 November [2020]?” The Prime Minister replied,  “No, but I am sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.”

Sue Gray later ruled that there had been a party and that Boris Johnson attended it. Gray’s report into Downing Street breaches of Covid guidelines found that “A number of press office staff and media special advisers gathered in the Press Office area of No 10 to mark the departure of Lee Cain, the No 10 Director of Communications. The investigation was informed that this was not pre-planned. It did occur at around the time that Wine Time Friday would normally be taking place. The Prime Minister attended on his way to his Downing Street flat, having left his office at 19.17. He went to the Press Office area, joined the gathering and made a leaving speech for Lee Cain. Wine had been provided and those attending, including the Prime Minister, were drinking alcohol. There are a number of photographs of the event.” 

At that point, Gray notes, On 5 November 2020, a second national lockdown was introduced which required people to stay at home and prohibited indoor gatherings of two or more people from other households except for permitted exceptions, including where the gathering is reasonably necessary for work purposes. Social distancing remained the rule at work, with guidance on working safely in offices saying you must maintain social distancing in the workplace wherever possible. Offices were advised to maintain social distancing guidelines (2m, or 1m with risk mitigation where 2m is not viable), wherever possible, including while arriving at and departing from work, while in work, and when travelling between sites.” 

The report goes on to detail another event that Boris Johnson attended later that evening at the No 10 flat. The Sue Gray report details the following “Following the announcement of the departure of Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, a meeting was held in the No 10 flat from some time after 18.00 to discuss the handling of their departure. Five special advisers attended. The Prime Minister joined them at about 20.00. Food and alcohol were available. The discussion carried on later into the evening with attendees leaving at various points.”

On 19 May 2022 the Metropolitan Police concluded their investigation and found that one or more events that took place on 13 November 2020 broke Covid-19 regulations. Because the Metropolitan Police did not specify the exact events that broke regulations and only provided the dates it is not clear what specific event they are referring to. However, Boris Johnson attended both events on 13 November 2020.

Verdict

Boris Johnson's statement to Catherine West was false. There was a party, as the Prime Minister must have known because he attended it, made a speech, and drank alcohol. The Covid guidance was not followed, as the Prime Minister claimed. The Sue Gray report made this clear, and the Metropolitan Police issued fines in connection with the event. Johnson’s claim that “rules were followed at all times” is also nonsense, given that the Metropolitan Police issued 126 referrals for Fixed Penalty Notices. 

The Prime Minister, therefore, misled Parliament. According to the Ministerial Code,  “It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.  Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.”  Boris Johnson has not returned to the House of Commons to correct the record.

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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