Boris Johnson promises 'hand on heart' he didn't lie over Partygate rule-breaking

ITV News' Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana and UK Editor Paul Brand explain the fallout of Boris Johnson's grilling over Partygate and whether he misled Parliament

  • Words by ITV News Westminster Producer, Lucy McDaid

Boris Johnson has promised "hand on heart" he did not lie to MPs when he denied Downing Street parties broke coronavirus rules and guidance.

The former prime minister was grilled by MPs over claims he knowingly misled Parliament about the Partygate affair, in a hearing that could make or break his political career.

Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, made up of 6,000 people who lost loved ones during the pandemic, has described the hearing as a "new low" for Mr Johnson.

"It’s clear he lied when he said to our faces that he’d done 'all he could' to protect our loved ones, he lied again when he said the rules hadn’t been broken in number 10, and he’s lying now when he denies that was the case," a spokesperson said.

Former Business Secretary and Mr Johnson supporter, Jacob Rees-Mogg, said "Boris has won in the court of public opinion and that's ultimately, for politicians, what matters."

When asked by ITV News if he thinks Mr Johnson would win a possible by-election, he said: "Yes he'd win a by-election, but I don't think it will be necessary."

The questioning of the former prime minister lasted for just under three and a half hours.

These were the key moments...

  • Committee 'is not relying on Sue Gray report'

Chair of the Commons Privileges Committee, Harriet Harman, assured those attending that their investigation has not taken into account the Sue Gray report, rather their own evidence.

Ms Harman, a Labour grandee, also dismissed accusations of unfairness. "This committee is comprised of MPs who have been appointed to this role by the House of Commons", she said.

"The political balance of this committee reflects the political balance in the House, which is why the committee comprises four Conservatives and three opposition MPs, including two from Labour and one from the SNP."

Boris Johnson said any statements to the House of Commons were made in 'good faith'

  • 'Hand on heart, I did not lie to the House'

After being greeted by cheers, Mr Johnson said in his opening statement: "I am here to say to you, hand on heart, that I did not lie to the House. When I made those statements they were made in good faith on the basis of what I honestly knew."

He also insisted the committee publish all of the evidence it has investigated, claiming that they haven't published "vital evidence" which he will be relying upon. "This is manifestly unfair," he told them.

  • 'No evidence' that gatherings were against the rules

Picking up where he left off, after voting on Rishi Sunak's Brexit deal, Mr Johnson stressed the committee has no evidence to suggest he was warned by advisers that events at Number 10 were against the rules.

He also picked apart the difference between the coronavirus 'rules' and 'guidance'. It was difficult, he said, to be "working efficiently and at speed, and maintain perfect social distancing" inside a work environment such as Number 10.

What did Boris Johnson really know about Downing Street’s notorious parties? With fresh revelations from our sources, in their own words, listen to the definitive behind-closed-doors story of one of the biggest scandals of our era

  • 'I will believe to the day I die' that thanking staff was important

Talking to the committee, Mr Johnson insisted the maximum amount of time he spent at the pandemic gatherings was 25 minutes.

As stated in his 52-page defence dossier published on Tuesday, the former prime minister insisted that boosting staff morale during the pandemic was essential.

He said: "I will believe to the day I die, it was my job to thank staff for what they had done."

Boris Johnson said it was his job to thank staff for their hard work during the Covid pandemic

  • The 'famous Union Jack cake'

At a gathering for his birthday on June 19, 2020, for which Mr Johnson was issued with a Fixed Penalty Notice, he maintains that he knew nothing about it.

On that famous birthday cake, Mr Johnson told the committee: "The famous union jack cake remained in its tupperware box, unnoticed by me."

  • We followed the rules and guidance 'to the best of our ability'

Boris Johnson has back-pedalled on his initially outright denials that all rules and guidance were followed at all times, by saying that rules and guidance were followed "to the best of our ability."

This, he told the committee, "is what the guidance required."

Former senior civil servant Sue Gray investigated lockdown breaches in Downing Street Credit: Sue Gray Report/Cabinet Office/PA
  • 'Not everybody is perfectly socially distanced'

Taking over the job of interrogating Mr Johnson, Sir Bernard Jenkin referred to one of the photographs leaked from a gathering in November 2020.

It was taken by an official Downing Street photographer, a fact Mr Johnson has stressed on numerous occasions, but it was never officially published like many are.

Mr Johnson was asked if he accepts there was no social distancing in the photograph, despite assuring MPs in December 2021 that all guidance had been followed.

In response Mr Johnson accepted "not everybody is perfectly socially distanced in that picture" but insisted he "didn't think that contravened the guidance".

  • 'It was necessary for work purposes'

Mr Jenkin refused to move on from that photograph and asked Mr Johnson why he ever thought the leaving party was within the rules.

"The guidance does not say you can have a thank you party and as many people as you want," Mr Jenkin continued.

Again defending his attendance at the gathering, Mr Johnson insisted it was "reasonably necessary for work purposes", a point laid out clearly in the defence dossier.

He said: "November 13th was a day in which two senior advisers in government left their jobs in very very difficult and challenging circumstances - it was necessary to steady the ship... to show the business of government was being carried on".

  • Johnson drags Sunak into Partygate grilling

Boris Johnson has dragged his predecessor Rishi Sunak into his partygate hearing by suggesting if it should have been obvious to him that lockdown rules were being broken in No 10, it should also have been apparent to "the current Prime Minister".Mr Johnson told the committee: "If it was obvious to me that these events were contrary to the guidance and the rules, then it must have been equally obvious to dozens of others, including the most senior officials in the country, all of them - like me - responsible for drawing up the rules.

"And it must have been obvious to others in the building including the current Prime Minister."

Both Mr Sunak and Mr Johnson were fined for attending the then-prime minister's birthday party in Downing Street.

  • 'The most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now'

Arguably one of the most damaging pieces of evidence obtained by the Privileges Committee points to a comment allegedly made by the former prime minister at a gathering in November 2020.

According to the committee, Mr Johnson said he was at "probably the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now" to which the former prime minister said "it's unlikely" he would have ever said that.

If anything, Mr Johnson claimed in questioning, it's "certainly likely that I would have drawn attention to the importance of social distancing" when pressed further by Mr Jenkin.

  • 'Bring your own booze' garden party

The 'bring your own booze' party is raised by the committee and the concerns allegedly expressed by Mr Johnson's then-director of communications, Lee Cain.

In an email first seen by ITV News, Mr Johnson's principal private secretary Martin Reynolds invited officials for "socially distanced drinks in the No10 garden" in order "to make the most of this lovely weather".

The cross-party group of MPs questioning Mr Johnson claimed that Mr Cain raised concerns about the "optics" of the gathering, but again he remained adamant that no concerns were raised with him directly.

  • Boris Johnson 'loses his cool'

For the first time since the hearing started, the former prime minister visibly broke his rather calm demeanour when grilled. "People who say that we were partying in lockdown simply do not know what they are talking about," he exclaimed. He insisted again he felt it was his "purpose" to "thank staff and motivate them in what had been a very difficult time".

'People who say that we were partying in lockdown simply do not know what they are talking about,' the former PM said

  • 'Partygate probe' over for now

After grilling Mr Johnson on Downing Street gatherings, the committee moved onto his multiple statements to the Commons from the end of 2021.

There was questioning of Mr Johnson's insistence that gatherings in Number 10, including the garden, were work events.

Despite still insisting that all gatherings were within the guidance, he said: "I had to accept that even though I believe they were within the guidance, I have to accept that members of the public looking at it would think that was something he is not allowing us to do".

It was only "in retrospect" that he accepted this, he said, and didn't make it clear to MPs in the commons sooner.

  • 'We didn't touch each other's pens'

Asked what mitigation measures were in place in Number 10 to reduce the spread of the virus, Mr Johnson said "we didn't touch each other's pens".

  • Jack Doyle and James Slack

Two names came up a lot in the questioning session. Jack Doyle, the former prime minister's Director of Communications, and James Slack, Downing Street's former Director of Communications. One Conservative MP on the committee, Alberto Costa, secured from Mr Johnson that the only officials who confirmed to him that Covid rules and guidance weren't broken were those paid to advise him on media relations, Mr Doyle and Mr Slack. The point being made was their primary responsibility was to protect the then-prime minister from negative media coverage, not to evaluate whether or not officials in Downing Street were following guidance, writes ITV's Political Editor Robert Peston. Committee chair Harriet Harman said to Mr Johnson that his reliance on "reported assurances" were a "deflection mechanism" to prevent him from having to answer questions about his knowledge of the gatherings. Mr Johnson called that a "completely ridiculous assessment" and that it was "entirely sensible" to talk to both Mr Doyle and Mr Slack to get their "honest take" on what happened. "From what Jack was telling me, it sounded like it was in accordance with the rules," said Mr Johnson, referring to an event he was not in attendance at on 18 December, 2020.

Not for the first time, he repeated that it was "necessary for work purposes".

The Conservative Party claims the public is 'on Boris Johnson's side' but that view is not universally shared, as ITV News UK Editor Paul Brand explains

  • The 'kangaroo court'

As the hearing neared its end, the exchanges between Mr Johnson and the committee became increasingly strained.

When asked about Jacob Rees Mogg's categorisation of the Privileges Committee as a "kangaroo court", Mr Johnson said he "deprecates" the term and admitted there should be "no intimidation" of those on the panel.

However, Mr Johnson refused to say whether or not he will accept the committee's conclusion once released.

  • The guidance 'allowed for social distancing not to be carried out'

In their final exchanges, Ms Harman gave Mr Johnson the opportunity to change remarks made throughout the mammoth session.

But Mr Johnson stuck to his guns, arguing that government guidance at the time "allowed social distancing not to be carried out" providing "there were mitigations" in place.

He left the session just before 5.30pm.

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