Boris Johnson is facing serious questions over his integrity after the former head of the diplomatic service refuted his evidence over the Chris Pincher affair.
In a letter and BBC interview on Tuesday, Lord Simon McDonald contradicted the British Prime Minister’s version of events over the scandal in which the former deputy chief whip was accused of inappropriate physical contact with two men.
The former Foreign Office permanent secretary accused Downing Street of “telling the truth and crossing your fingers at the same time”.
“What I have seen and read over the last few days, I knew to be wrong and things get to a point where you have to do the right thing,” he said.
Lord McDonald is a respected establishment figure who has undertaken a highly unusual intervention that questions the premier’s probity. He retired after a long career that included appointments as ambassador to Germany and Israel, as well as private secretary to the foreign secretary between 2001 and 2003.
When reports first emerged that Mr Pincher had resigned from his ministerial post on Thursday questions were raised over why Mr Johnson had appointed him as a whip in February despite previous complaints.
Downing Street originally said the prime minister was “not aware of any specific allegations” against Mr Pincher.
Education Minister Will Quince was then sent out to defend this line on Monday, stating he had been given a “categorical assurance” that Mr Johnson was unaware of the complaints.
A few hours later, during a Westminster Lobby briefing, journalists were told the issues were now either resolved or did not progress to a formal complaint.
On Tuesday, just minutes before Lord McDonald appeared for an interview on the BBC’s Today radio programme, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said it was news to him that the prime minister had been briefed in person about Mr Pincher’s issues.
He was responding to the devastating letter Lord McDonald wrote to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, that he also tweeted.
“The original No 10 line is not true and the modification is still not accurate,” the peer stated. “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.”
Lord McDonald, 61, told the BBC a senior Cabinet official specifically told him he had informed Mr Johnson of the complaints.
The career diplomat admitted it was “very unusual” for a retired senior civil servant to directly contradict a prime minister but he did so following the apparent dissembling he had witnessed.
Lord McDonald, a Cambridge University graduate, has effectively demolished Mr Johnson’s position on the issue in the most devastating public fashion.
The diplomat took early retirement from leading the Foreign Office in 2020 after he clashed with Downing Street by suggesting a political decision relating to Brexit resulted in the government not joining the European Union in bulk buying safety equipment and ventilators during the Covid-19 pandemic. Mr Johnson said it was time for new leadership when the Foreign Office merged with the international aid department that year.
His exposure of Mr Johnson’s position also comes at a particularly perilous time for the prime minster. On Wednesday next week elections will be held for the 1922 Committee that sets the rules for Conservative Party leadership votes. If a majority of anti-Mr Johnson MPs are voted in they are likely to change the rules to enable a second confidence vote. On this occasion, it is entirely possible Mr Johnson could be removed from power.
Following a long list of scandals, including the Partygate affair, Lord McDonald’s evidence might prove the final straw that broke Mr Johnson’s premiership.