The Former Prime Minister’s evidence to the Privileges Committee only confirms his complicity in events inside Downing Street, writes Adam Bienkov
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Over recent weeks Boris Johnson’s spokespeople and allies have briefed friendly newspapers that he was about to release a “bombshell” dossier of evidence that “vindicated” his claim not to have deliberately misled the House of Commons over Partygate.
That dossier has now finally arrived and far from vindicating the former Prime Minister, it instead merely confirms his own complicity in the events that took place inside Downing Street during lockdown.
From the outset it is hard to take the 52 pages of evidence submitted by Johnson to the Privileges Committee particularly seriously. The text is riddled with basic errors of grammar and fact. For example, in one particularly confusing section the former Prime Minister claims to have spoken to officials about what had occurred at an event that was then still in the future.
The broader gist of Johnson’s defence is also difficult to take. Repeatedly Johnson seeks to blame his own officials for his multiple claims to Parliament that no rules had been broken inside Downing Street. As well as being rather unedifying to see such blame-spreading from someone who previously claimed to have taken “full responsibility” for what happened, this defence is also difficult to swallow from someone who at the time was the most powerful elected politician in the country.
Yet it is the substance of Johnson’s evidence that is most damning to his cause. At several points in the dossier Johnson admits to having been aware of what took place inside No 10 and even having attended some of the events in question.
At one such event inside Downing Street’s press office, which he says he did not personally attend, Johnson admits being aware that it had involved drinks, cheese and a ‘Secret Santa’, but then claims that he believed it couldn’t have been a party because one of the attendees had told him that it wasn’t. This is far from credible.
Crucially at another such event, which he does admit personally attending, he does not deny a claim made by a Downing Street official that he had boasted to the room that “this is probably the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now”. Johnson says he does not recall the comments but admits that he “might well” have said them. Again, this does not give the impression of someone unaware of the rules at the time.
Yet despite admitting to being aware of what took place, attending some of the events, and joking about the lack of social distancing, Johnson repeatedly insists that he did not believe that any of these events constituted a “party”.
It’s worth saying that these definitions are not particularly important. The Covid laws at the time did not explicitly mention parties, but were instead related to ‘gatherings’, which these clearly were. However, Johnson’s denial that these events could be described as parties is somewhat undermined by his own subsequent admission that he personally referred to one such event in this way. His attempt at an explanation for his use of the ‘party’ term – that this was how “the media” were referring to the events – is also not particularly convincing.
Following the release of Johnson’s dossier on Tuesday, the former Prime Minister’s supporters took to the airwaves to defend his conduct, with the Conservative MP Ben Bradley telling the BBC that “nobody was an expert on those rules” at the time.
Of course such a claim would be more convincing were it not related to the actions of the actual Prime Minister who wrote the rules, passed them into law and then personally explained them to the rest of the country on an almost nightly basis.
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When Johnson appears in front of the Privileges Committee on Wednesday he will be asked to explain why his misleading comments to the House of Commons about what happened inside Downing Street did not amount to contempt of Parliament.
Such a defence will be made significantly more difficult by his own actions.
In recent days he appears to have repeatedly sanctioned briefings calling the very integrity of the parliamentary Privileges Committee and its members into doubt. As a general rule acting contemptuously towards Parliament is not the best way of convincing people that you did not hold Parliament in contempt.
Yet it is the substance of Johnson’s own evidence that is most damaging to his case. Put simply the former Prime Minister has, in his own words, admitted to repeatedly misleading Parliament, and to have done so while being well aware of what actually took place.
His claim to have been totally unaware that any of these events, which resulted in a total of 126 fixed penalty notices from the Metropolitan Police, amounted to a breach of the rules, is so obviously false that it barely needs interrogating.
Yet interrogating this claim is exactly what members of the Privileges Committee will be charged with doing on Wednesday. Based on the contents of Johnson’s dodgy dossier, these are not proceedings that are likely to go well for the former Prime Minister.
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