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After apology, Johnson hits back at MPs in face of Sue Gray’s criticism

31 January 2022


The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, in the Commons on Monday answering questions on the Sue Gray interim report

The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, in the Commons on Monday answering questions on the Sue Gray interim report

THE Prime Minister was under heavy fire from MPs on Monday after an initial report by Sue Gray cited a “failure of leadership and judgement” surrounding illegal parties that were held in Downing Street during national lockdowns in 2020.

“Take me to your misleader”

Ms Gray confirmed that the Metropolitan Police was investigating several claims that parties were held in the gardens and private flat of No.10 Downing Street, the Cabinet Office, and the Department of Education between June and December 2020 and in January and April 2021. For this reason, her initial findings, published on Monday, had been cut down to a 12-page “update”. A full investigative report will be published later.

In the update, she writes that, given the severity of the pandemic and government restrictions at the time, “some of the behaviour surrounding these gatherings is difficult to justify. At least some of the gatherings in question represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of Government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time.”

She continued: “There were failures of leadership and judgement by different parts of No 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times. Some of the events should not have been allowed to take place. Other events should not have been allowed to develop as they did.”

She also writes: “The excessive consumption of alcohol is not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time.”

Mr Johnson made a short statement on the report in the House of Commons on Monday afternoon, which began with an apology but quickly moved on to the Government’s achievements, such as superfast broadband and the encouragement of free ports. He was brought back to the Gray report by a barrage of questions from MPs.

Opposition MPs were expectedly hostile. The Labour MP Chris Bryant, once an Anglican priest, said: “This is who the Prime Minister is. A serious failure to observe high standards. Failures of leadership and judgement. Excessive consumption of alcohol in a professional workplace. Gatherings that should not have been able to take place. Staff too frightened to raise concerns. Parties in his own private flat. . .

“He still won’t even admit to the House that, when he came to us on 13 November and said: ‘The guidance and the rules were followed at all times’ — and on 1 December that ‘all the guidelines were observed’ — that those things simply were not true. If he won’t correct the record today, there’s nothing accidental about this, is there? It’s deliberate.”

Mr Johnson repeatedly directed MPs to the line in the Gray report that “no conclusions should be drawn or inferences made from this other than it is now time for the police to consider the relevant material.”

But the heaviest blows were landed by members of Mr Johnson’s own party. The former Prime Minister Theresa May told the House: “The Covid regulations impose significant restrictions on the freedoms of members of the public. They had a right to expect their Prime Minister to have read the rules, to understand the meaning of the rules, and indeed those around him to have done so too, and to set an example in following those rules.”

She continued: “What the Gray report does show is that No 10 Downing Street was not observing the regulations they had imposed on members of the public. So either [Mr Johnson] had not read the rules, or didn’t understand what they meant, and others around him, or they didn’t think the rules applied to No 10. Which was it?”

Mr Johnson replied: “That is not what the Gray report says. I suggest that she waits to see the conclusion of the inquiry,” a line that he used repeatedly in Monday afternoon’s exchanges.

The Christian Conservative MP Steve Baker said: “Millions of people took seriously a communications campaign apparently designed by behavioural psychologists to bully, to shame, and to terrify them into compliance with minute restrictions on their freedom.” He asked what the Prime Minister had to say to “those people who meticulously complied with all of the rules and suffered terribly for it”. Mr Johnson replied: “I want to thank all those people for everything they did, because together they have helped us to control coronavirus.”

Andrew Mitchell MP, a former Tory Secretary of State for International Development (Interview, 7 August 2007) said to Mr Johnson that, despite his “full-throated support” in the past, the Prime Minister “no longer enjoys my support”.

Aaron Bell MP related how he had attended his grandmother’s funeral in May 2020, driving three hours there, delivering a eulogy, then driving three hours back. “I didn’t hug my siblings, I didn’t hug my parents. . . Does the Prime Minister think I am a fool?”

During a debate in the House of Lords on Monday night, Lord Cormack asked: “Would it not be reasonable to say that what this statement amounts to from the Prime Minister is very simply mea culpa?”

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said: “I spend time talking with children. Sometimes they cut to the chase. So last week in primary schools, Year 6 children said to me, ‘Do you trust the Prime Minister? Can we trust him?’ They were not interested in parties, civils servants, special advisers — it was, can we trust the Prime Minister?” 

Responding, Baroness Evans said: “The PM says that he knows the issue is trust and that we are a Government that can be trusted to deliver. But he also understands that we need to work tirelessly to prove that.”

Speaking on the BBC Panorama programme, Boris Johnson on the Brink, aired on Monday night, which focused on the alleged No.10 flat party on the eve of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral on 17 April (News, 17 April), the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, said: “The film and the photographs of the Queen in St George’s Chapel are iconic, playing by the rules in circumstances in which anyone would have said, ‘If you break these, we fully understand.’ In the face of that devotion to duty, how do you consider the contrast of what is alleged to have gone on elsewhere.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the chair of Christians in Parliament, Sir Gary Streeter, who is the Conservative MP for South West Devon, joined other Conservative MPs in submitting a letter of no confidence in Mr Johnson. In a Facebook post, Mr Streeter said: “I cannot reconcile the pain and sacrifice of the vast majority of the British Public during lockdown with the attitude and activities of those working in Downing Street. Accordingly, I have now submitted a letter seeking a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister.”

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