New Partygate images released as Boris Johnson hits out at Sue Gray
Political Reporter Amy Lewis sets out the latest developments to emerge from Downing Street. Words by Lewis Denison, Westminster Producer.
Boris Johnson has said it is “surreal” and “particularly concerning” that the Parliament's inquiry into whether he lied about Partygate will rely on evidence gathered by Sue Gray, who is set to join Labour.
The former prime minister has been called to give evidence to the Privileges Committee in the week beginning March 20 after a preliminary report said it would have “obvious” to him that Covid rules were being broken on Downing Street.
New evidence of rule breaking, not previously seen, was released in the 24-page report, including new images which show him at various gatherings.
Mr Johnson, while PM, on numerous occasions apologised to the Commons over rule breaking by his staff but repeatedly insisted he was unaware of it taking place. The committee is investigating whether he committed contempt of Parliament by intentionally misleading MPs.
Releasing a report ahead of Mr Johnson's hearing, in order to give him chance to formulate a response, the committee said: “The evidence strongly suggests that breaches of guidance would have been obvious to Mr Johnson at the time he was at the gatherings.”
In one piece of evidence, originally uncovered by ITV News, the Privileges Committee said Mr Johnson remarked a leaving party in No 10 was “probably the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now”.
But Mr Johnson hit out at the committee because much of its learning has been based on evidence gathered by Ms Gray's Partygate report, which his allies are now calling a "stitch up".
In a statement, he said: "It is surreal to discover that the Committee proposes to rely on evidence culled and orchestrated by Sue Gray, who has just been appointed Chief of Staff to the Leader of the Labour Party.
"This is particularly concerning given that the Committee says it is proposing to rely on ‘the findings in the second permanent secretary’s report’ as ‘relevant facts which the Committee will take into account.
"I leave it to others to decide how much confidence may now be placed in her inquiry and in the reports that she produced."
The Privileges Committee denies its inquiry was based on Ms Gray's evidence but instead on evidence supplied last November including witnesses present at the time of the gatherings, WhatsApps, emails and photographs from the official Downing Street photographer.
Ms Gray quit her role as second permanent secretary in the Cabinet Office with immediate effect on Thursday to take up the role of Keir Starmer's chief of staff.
Labour has insisted it began talks with her "well after" she concluded her report into coronavirus rule-breaking on Downing Street.
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves told ITV News: "We've been looking for a chief of staff for the last two or three months, since the former chief of staff left at the end of last year - so for quite a short period of time and well after Sue Gray's report into Boris Johnson's partying at Number 10 Downing Street."
Rachel Reeves on talks between Labour and Sue Gray:
Ms Gray's 60-page document revealed highly damaging details of the Partygate saga and attacked Number 10 over a "failure of leadership".
But Labour's plan to hire her - which still has to be approved by government - has led many to question the integrity of the Partygate report.
Former Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said her report "now looks like a left wing stitch up against a Tory prime minister".
Nadine Dorries, a staunch supporter of Mr Johnson and served in his Cabinet, also said it was a "stitch up".
She said: “Sue Gray’s evidence cannot be relied upon in any meaningful way until we know how long Sue Gray has had a personal relationship with Keir Starmer and for how long they have been discussing Sue going to work for him as his most trusted and important adviser.
“It is very hard to see how Sue has not breached the civil service code.”
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Ms Reeves insisted Ms Gray has the "utmost integrity" and shown the "highest standards in public life" and can "play an important role in the Labour in helping us prepare for government" ahead of next year's general election.
Rishi Sunak does have the power to block the appointments of top civil servants after they leave government for up to two years if it decided there is a conflict of interest. It is not year clear if he intends to do that.
He was fined, along with Mr Johnson for attending a gathering in Downing Street on the former PM's birthday.
Keir Starmer says ‘it’s important to bear in mind that Rishi Sunak, at the time, was very close to all of this and sat on his hands’ as he called on the PM to move forward quickly with the Covid inquiry
Mr Johnson said on Thursday he did not understand the rationale for fining him over that gathering.
The Privileges Committee said it will consider why Mr Johnson told MPs that no guidance had been broken “when he knew what the guidance was and was in attendance at gatherings where the guidance was breached”.
It will examine claims by the then-prime minister in December 2021 that “all guidance was followed completely in No. 10” and “the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times”.
The committee will also look into “why he failed to tell the House about the gatherings at which he had been present”.
In his statement, Mr Johnson said: “It is clear from this report that I have not committed any contempt of Parliament. It is also clear that what I have been saying about this matter from the beginning has been vindicated.
“That is because there is no evidence in the report that I knowingly or recklessly misled parliament, or that I failed to update parliament in a timely manner.
“Nor is there any evidence in the report that I was aware that any events taking place in No 10 or the Cabinet Office were in breach of the rules or the guidance.”