UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was at the centre of yet another ethics scandal on Tuesday after his office was accused of "not telling the truth" about an MP accused of sexual misconduct.
Former senior civil servant Simon McDonald said Mr Johnson had known of concrete allegations against Chris Pincher before appointing him to a government role, contradicting Downing Street's earlier claims about the scandal.
The highly unusual intervention by Mr McDonald, a former head of the British diplomatic service, piles further pressure on Mr Johnson after a string of scandals left him fighting for his political career.
In yet another change of tone, a Downing Street spokesman admitted on Tuesday that Mr Johnson had been briefed about Mr Pincher's behaviour following complaints at the Foreign Office in 2019, but suggested he had forgotten.
Mr Pincher resigned as a government whip on Thursday after separate claims that he made a pass at two men while drunk.
"A prime minister has a myriad array of urgent and pressing responsibilities... he may be told literally hundreds of things in any one day," said Cabinet Office minister Michael Ellis, defending the government in the House of Commons.
Mr Johnson's office previously said he had only known of vague and unsubstantiated allegations against Mr Pincher - leading to allegations of a cover-up from the opposition Labour Party.
“It’s clear the PM knew about the seriousness of these complaints but promoted this man anyway,” said Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner.
Mr McDonald dramatically went public with a letter to the parliamentary standards commissioner just as Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab was defending Mr Johnson on morning television. Told of Mr McDonald's account of the prime minister being briefed, Mr Raab said: “That's news to me.”
The scandal gives Mr Johnson yet another ethics headache after months of damaging revelations and the damning Sue Gray report into rule-breaking at his office during lockdown left him fighting for his political career.
He narrowly survived a confidence vote last month after many of his own MPs turned on him, but his attempt to reboot his premiership by installing a new team at 10 Downing Street has failed to end the whiff of scandal around his government.
Two stinging defeats in parliamentary by-elections in England, both prompted by Conservative MPs resigning in disgrace, further damaged Mr Johnson's authority.
“Number 10 keep changing their story and are still not telling the truth,” said Mr McDonald in his letter. “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.”
After allegations emerged against Mr Pincher:
- A Downing Street spokesman initially said on Friday that Mr Johnson was not aware of specific allegations, and that “in the absence of formal complaints” it would not have been appropriate to block Mr Pincher's appointment in February;
- Dominic Cummings, a former Johnson aide turned bitter critic of his government, claimed Mr Johnson had once referred to the MP as “Pincher by name, pincher by nature”, suggesting he knew of Mr Pincher's alleged behaviour;
- An amended Downing Street line on Monday acknowledged that Mr Johnson had known of “allegations that were either resolved or did not progress to a formal complaint”, and had been aware of speculation about Mr Pincher;
- But Mr McDonald took objection to the word “resolved” and said: “The original Number 10 line is not true and the modification is still not accurate.”
Mr McDonald said the 2019 allegations against Mr Pincher, then a junior minister at the Foreign Office, were similar in substance to the groping claims that emerged on Thursday.
He said Mr Pincher had apologised after the complaint by a group of officials was upheld, and promised “not to repeat the inappropriate behaviour”.
The Cabinet Office was briefed about that incident and a senior official subsequently briefed Mr Johnson about what happened, Mr McDonald told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
He said he had weighed in because Downing Street had failed to get the story right and because he did not believe in anonymously briefing his side of the story to journalists.
Further allegations of a similar nature have since been made against Mr Pincher, some dating back more than a decade.
Mr Pincher denied the allegations, but admitted drinking too much at a London private member's club on Wednesday, and said on Saturday that he was seeking professional medical support.
Mr Pincher, who resigned from the deputy chief whip role he was appointed to in February — in which he was meant to enforce party discipline — has also been suspended as a Conservative MP.
The intervention by Mr McDonald came only minutes after Mr Raab, sent out to defend the government on morning television, had claimed that Mr Johnson was not directly briefed.
Mr Raab, who was Foreign Secretary in 2019, said he had warned Mr Pincher about his conduct but that the claims did not “trip the wire into disciplinary action”.
Responding to Mr McDonald's claim, he said a Cabinet Office propriety and ethics team had raised no objections when Mr Pincher returned to government in February.