The ever-changing narrative means the questions around Boris Johnson's judgement are only growing louder, reports Political Reporter Shehab Khan
Boris Johnson "forgot" he had been told that Chris Pincher was the subject of an official complaint about his conduct, according to his spokesperson.
It follows repeated denials from Downing Street - and a succession of ministers - that the prime minister was aware of any formal complaint made against the Tamworth MP.
But on Tuesday the prime minister’s spokesperson confirmed that Mr Johnson was briefed on the complaint by officials at the Foreign Office in 2019, a “number of months” after it took place.
The spokesperson said the complaint against Mr Pincher – who was Europe minister at the time – was upheld although it did not lead to formal disciplinary action.
No 10 had previously claimed Mr Johnson had not been aware of any “specific allegations”, after Mr Pincher’s dramatic resignation last week as deputy chief whip following claims he groped two men at a private members’ club.
“At the time last week that was the prime minister’s view. You will appreciate it takes some time to establish he was briefed, albeit we don’t think in formal briefing on this,” the spokesperson said.
“This dates back a number of years. On Friday, it was our belief that he was not informed about that specific incident.”
Almost simultaneously, Cabinet Office minister Michael Ellis told the Commons that Mr Johnson was “made aware” in “late 2019” of concerns relating to Mr Pincher.
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'Enough is enough' - Tory MPs react
Tory MPs lined up in the House of Commons to publicly condemn Mr Johnson’s handling of the Mr Pincher affair, with senior figures urging ministers to consider their positions.
Conservative former minister John Penrose asked Mr Ellis when he would finally say “enough is enough” and no longer defend the government, while the Conservative chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, William Wragg, urged ministers to consider their position.
Sir Bernard Jenkin, chairman of the Liaison Committee, demanded to know why those with “the wrong attitudes and the wrong behaviours” are promoted by their leaders.
He asked: “Isn’t that exactly what gives permission for the wrong attitudes and the wrong behaviours to persist?”
Meanwhile, Jackie Doyle-Price, a former minister and assistant government whip, insisted the whiff of rumours and historic incidents surrounding Mr Pincher should have been enough to tell the Prime Minister the appointment was not “wise”.
She also called for a “complete reset of standards” and “a complete reboot of the Ministerial Code”.
The prime minister was 'briefed in person'
The statements come just hours after a senior civil servant cast doubt on Downing Street's previous comments, writing in a letter to the parliamentary standards commissioner that the prime minister had in fact been briefed "in person" about an investigation into Mr Pincher's conduct.
Lord Simon McDonald of Salford has submitted a formal complaint to Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone saying the account given by Downing Street was “not true”.
The civil servant, who was permanent under secretary and head of the Diplomatic Service at the Foreign Office when allegations against Mr Pincher were made, said there was a "formal complaint" which Prime Minister Johnson was told about.
He said he felt compelled to speak out about Mr Pincher - who resigned last week over allegations he "groped" two men in a private members’ club - "because No 10 keep changing their story and are still not telling the truth".
In his letter, Lord McDonald said: “Mr Johnson was briefed in person about the initiation and outcome of the investigation. There was a ‘formal complaint’.
“Allegations were ‘resolved’ only in the sense that the investigation was completed; Mr Pincher was not exonerated. To characterise the allegations as ‘unsubstantiated’ is therefore wrong.”
Dominic Raab's defence undermined
Despite the confirmation which eventually followed the letter, earlier on Tuesday Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab appeared to suggest his former Foreign Office colleague was incorrect in his account.
"It's not clear to me how Sir Simon, now Lord McDonald, knows that and that was not my understanding," he said.
"I'm not aware that he [the prime minister] was briefed in person, it was news to me. I'm not clear how Lord McDonald would know that first hand either," he added.
"I don't think he would have been the one doing the briefing so it sounds like he's relying on someone else informing him what was communicated to the prime minister."
Mr Raab said that while he had informed the then chief whip, Mark Spencer, about the investigation into Mr Pincher, he did not believe it was necessary to tell the prime minister.
Lord McDonald also said that in the summer of 2019, shortly after Mr Pincher was made Europe minister, a group of officials in the Foreign Office had complained to him about his behaviour.
He said that an investigation into the allegations – which were similar to his alleged behaviour at the Carlton Club last week which led to his resignation – had upheld the complaint.
Lord McDonald said that in 2019 Mr Pincher had apologised and promised not to repeat the inappropriate behaviour.
There was no repetition at the Foreign Office before he left seven months later to become a housing minister, he added.
Acknowledging it was "unusual" to write to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner and publicise his letter, he concluded: "I am conscious of the duty owed to the target of an investigation but I act out of of my duty towards the victims.
"Mr Pincher deceived me and others in 2019. He cannot be allowed to use the confidentiality of the process three years ago to pursue his predatory behaviour in other contexts."
Mr Raab - who was foreign secretary at the time of the complaint - also said on Tuesday he and the permanent secretary had spoken to Mr Pincher about his conduct and warned him that it must "not be repeated" after it was confirmed no formal action would be taken.
He told Times Radio: "I also, for assurance and to make sure we had taken the most rigorous approach, referred the matter to the Cabinet Office ethics and propriety team who looked at it and they confirmed there wasn't a case for proceeding under the Ministerial Code.
"We followed the processes - I did - to the letter, in fact beyond what was recommended."
Previous complaints about Chris Pincher
That was not the first complaint of that nature about Mr Pincher. In 2017, Mr Pincher quit as a whip in Theresa May's government after Tory activist Alex Story accused him of making an inappropriate advance during an alleged incident in 2017.
Mr Pincher referred himself to police, who took no further action, and the Conservative Party complaints procedure.
He was later reinstated after being cleared by an internal Conservative Party investigation.
Critics of Mr Johnson are questioning his judgement in making Mr Pincher one of his top discipline enforcers in government, given previous accusations against him.
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Over the weekend, however, details emerged in the press of further claims about alleged sexual advances to men – including two fellow Conservative MPs – over a period of years.
Mr Pincher has denied the allegations to the newspapers which carried them.
On Monday a spokesperson for the prime minister also declined to comment on a claim by Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings that the prime minister had referred to the MP as “Pincher by name, pincher by nature”.
“I’m simply not going to comment on content of what was or wasn’t said in private conversations,” the spokesperson said.
Mr Johnson sought to move on from the controversy at Tuesday morning's Cabinet meeting as he spoke of changes to National Insurance and paid tribute to minister Therese Coffey for her work as work and pensions secretary.
Ms Coffey is among several ministers who have been insisting in broadcast interviews recently that Mr Johnson was unaware of allegations against Mr Pincher.
She was heavily criticised for her performances on Sunday. She told Sky's Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme: "I am aware that the prime minister was not aware of specific claims that had been made."
At the time Mr Pincher was appointed deputy chief whip – alongside new chief whip Chris Heaton-Harris – Mr Johnson was facing pressure from Tory MPs seeking to oust him over lockdown parties in Downing Street.
The two men had run a shadow whipping operation – reportedly codenamed Operation Save Big Dog – to shore up his position and the prime minister was said to have wanted them to take over the full whips’ office.
Although Mr Pincher quit his government position on Thursday evening, Mr Johnson has faced criticism it was not until 5pm on Friday that he finally had the whip withdrawn and was expelled from the parliamentary Conservative Party.
Mr Pincher faces an investigation by Parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme after one of the men he allegedly groped last week at the Carlton Club submitted a formal complaint.
In a statement at the weekend, the Tamworth MP – who now sits as an independent – said he would co-operate fully with the inquiry and that he is seeking professional medical support following the "stresses of the last few days".