At Boris Johnson's No 10 parties, 'staff didn't share pens'

Former Conservative PM admits staff stood close to each other at farewell gathering but kept Covid threat in mind

Boris Johnson was grilled by members of the Privileges Committee as part of the partygate inquiry. AFP
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Boris Johnson said on Wednesday that No 10 had constant regard for Covid-19 restrictions during his tenure, pointing out that employees attending a farewell party for colleagues during lockdown “didn’t use each other’s pens”.

Mr Johnson was speaking before the UK Parliament's Privileges Committee on Wednesday afternoon as part of an inquiry into whether he misled MPs over the partygate scandal.

After marching into the room sporting a fresh haircut, Mr Johnson took to the hot seat to defend himself in a grilling by the seven-member panel. He was welcomed by several Conservative allies who shouted: “Hear! Hear!”

Asked if he felt holding a farewell party for two staff members could be justified even if social distancing rules could not be observed in a meeting room in No 10, Mr Johnson said it could.

He stressed that it was “essential to thank staff” for their efforts, saying that the party marking the resignation of Lee Cain and a second staff member “had to happen”.

When asked what steps were put in place to ensure attendees were abiding by Covid rules, he said they “didn’t use each other’s pens” and “didn’t pass things to each other”.

Harriet Harman, the Labour chairwoman of the committee, interjected to correct Mr Johnson. She pointed to a photo of the party showing bottles of alcohol on a table and staff standing around. The image, she said, suggests that “presumably people were passing drinks to each other”.

“Of course,” Mr Johnson admitted.

The outcome of the inquiry could determine the future of Mr Johnson’s political career.

Committee member Andy Carter, a Tory MP, grilled Mr Johnson on comments he had made in the House of Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions on December 1 and 8, 2021, in which he denied rules had been broken during lockdown.

Mr Johnson responded by saying that on those days, he was not aware that gatherings could have been in breach of restrictions, and stressed there was “no trace” in the committee’s evidence to suggest otherwise.

The Conservative former prime minister said there is confusion between Covid-19 guidance and Covid-19 rules. He argued that he did not think the British public would expect No 10 staff to follow the guidance in the same way that rules should be followed.

Mr Johnson suggested that if committee members had been “in my shoes”, it may also have not occurred to them that gatherings were in breach of the rules.

He pointed out that he “was not accused of lawbreaking” when asked why he failed to consult a lawyer before telling MPs that rules were abided by at all times.

Raising his voice in a clear indication of his frustration three hours into the meeting, he criticised the repeated questions over his failure to consult a lawyer.

“This is complete nonsense,” he fumed. “I spoke to the relevant people, they were senior people, they were working very hard.”

Several Tory MPs turned up to the much-anticipated committee hearing to support Mr Johnson.

Marco Longhi patted his colleague on the shoulder as he exited the room.

Updated: March 22, 2023, 6:54 PM