It is now many months since people started to warn me about the intentions of the Privileges Committee. They told me that it was a kangaroo court. They told me that it was being driven relentlessly by the political agenda of Harriet Harman, and supplied with skewed legal advice – with the sole political objective of finding me guilty and expelling me from parliament.
They also warned me that most members had already expressed prejudicial views – especially Harriet Harman – in a way that would not be tolerated in a normal legal process. Some alarmists even pointed out that the majority of the Committee voted remain and they stressed that Bernard Jenkin’s personal antipathy to me was historic and well-known.
To be frank, when I first heard these warnings, I was incredulous. When it was first proposed that there should be such an inquiry by this committee, I thought it was just some time-wasting procedural stunt by the Labour party.
I didn’t think for one minute that a committee of MPs could find against me on the facts, and I didn’t see how any reasonable person could fail to understand what had happened.
I knew exactly what events I had attended in Number 10. I knew what I had seen, with my own eyes, and like the current PM, I believed that these events were lawful. I believed that my participation was lawful, and required by my job; and that is indeed the implication of the exhaustive police inquiry.
The only exception is the June 19 2020 event, the so-called birthday party, when I and the then Chancellor Rishi Sunak were fined in circumstances that I still find puzzling (I had lunch at my desk with people I worked with every day).
So when on December 1, 2021 I told the House of Commons that “the guidance was followed completely” (in Number Ten) I meant it. It wasn’t just what I thought: it’s what we all thought – that we were following the rules and following the guidance completely – notwithstanding the difficulties of maintaining social distancing at all times.
The committee now says that I deliberately misled the House, and at the moment I spoke I was consciously concealing from the House my knowledge of illicit events.
This is rubbish. It is a lie. In order to reach this deranged conclusion, the Committee is obliged to say a series of things that are patently absurd, or contradicted by the facts.
First, they say that I must have known that the farewell events I attended were not authorised workplace events because – wait for it – NO SUCH EVENT could lawfully have taken place, anywhere in this country, under the Committee’s interpretation of covid rules. This is transparently wrong. I believed, correctly, that these events were reasonably necessary for work purposes. We were managing a pandemic. We had hundreds of staff engaged in what was sometimes a round-the-clock struggle against covid. Their morale mattered for that fight. It was important for me to thank them.
But don’t just listen to me. Take it from the Metropolitan Police. The police investigated my role at all of those events. In no case did they find that what I had done was unlawful. Above all it did not cross my mind – as I spoke in the House of Commons – that the events were unlawful.
I believed that we were working, and we were: talking for the main about nothing except work, mainly covid. Why would I have set out, in the Chamber, to conceal my knowledge of something illicit, if that account could be so readily contradicted by others? Why would we have had an official photographer if we believed we were breaking the law?
We didn’t believe that what we were doing was wrong, and after a year of work the Privileges Committee has found not a shred of evidence that we did.
Their argument can be boiled down to: ‘Look at this picture – that’s Boris Johnson with a glass in his hand. He must have known that the event was illegal. Therefore he lied.”
That is a load of complete tripe. That picture was me, in my place of work, trying to encourage and thank my officials in a way that I believed was crucial for the government and for the country as a whole, and in a way which I believed to be wholly within the rules.
For the Committee now to say that all such events – “thank-yous” and birthdays – were intrinsically illegal is ludicrous, contrary to the intentions of those who made the rules (including me), and contrary to the findings of the Met; and above all I did not for one moment think they were illicit – at the time or when I spoke in the Commons.
The Committee cannot possibly believe the conclusions of their own report – because it has now emerged that Sir Bernard Jenkin attended at least one “birthday event”, on December 8, 2020 – the birthday of his wife Anne – when it is alleged that alcohol and food were served and the numbers exceeded six indoors.
Why was it illegal for me to thank staff and legal for Sir Bernard to attend his wife’s birthday party?
The hypocrisy is rank. Like Harriet Harman, he should have recused himself from the inquiry, since he is plainly conflicted.
The rest of the Committee’s report is mainly a rehash of their previous non-points. They have nothing new of substance to say. They concede that they have found no evidence that I was warned, before or after an event, that it was illegal. That is surely very telling. If we had genuinely believed these events to be unauthorised – with all the political sensitivities entailed – then there would be some trace in all the thousands of messages sent to me, and to which the committee has had access.
It is preposterous to say, as the Committee does, that people were just too scared to mention concerns to their superiors. Really? Was Simon Case too scared to draw his concerns to my attention? Was Sue Gray or Rishi Sunak?
The Committee concedes that the guidance permitted social distancing of less than 1 m where there was no alternative – though they refuse to take account of all the other mitigations – including regular testing – that we put in place.
They keep wilfully missing the point. The question is not whether perfect social distancing was maintained at all times in Number ten – clearly that wasn’t possible, as I have said very often. The question is whether I believed, given the limitations of the building, we were doing enough, with mitigations, to follow the guidance – and I did, and so did everyone else.
They grudgingly accept that I was right to tell the Commons that I was repeatedly assured that the rules were followed in respect of the December 18 event in the media room, but they try, absurdly and incoherently, to say that the assurances of Jack Doyle and James Slack were not enough to constitute “repeated” assurances – completely and deliberately ignoring the sworn testimony of two MPs, Andrew Griffith and Sarah Dines, who have also said that they heard me being given such assurances.
Perhaps the craziest assertion of all is the Committee’s Mystic Meg claim that I saw the December 18 event with my own eyes. They say, without any evidence whatever, that at 21.58pm, on that date, my eyes for one crucial second glanced over to the media room as I went up to the flat – and that I saw what I recognised as an unauthorised event in progress.
First, the Committee has totally ignored the general testimony about that evening, which is that people were working throughout, even if some had been drinking at their desks. How on earth do these clairvoyants know exactly what was going on at 21.58?
How do they know what I saw? What retinal impressions have they somehow discovered, that are completely unavailable to me? I saw no goings on at all in the press room, or none that I can remember, certainly nothing illegal.
As the Committee has heard, officials were heavily engaged in preparing difficult messaging about the prospect of a No-deal Brexit and a Christmas lockdown.
It is a measure of the Committee’s desperation that they are trying incompetently and absurdly to tie me to an illicit event – with an argument so threadbare that it belongs in one of Bernard Jenkin’s nudist colonies.
Their argument is that I saw this event, believed it to be illegal, and had it in my head when I spoke to the House. On all three counts they are talking out of the backs of their necks. If I did see an illegal event, and register it as illegal, then why was I on my own in this? Why not the Cabinet Secretary, or Sue Gray, or the then Chancellor, who was patrolling the same corridors at the time?
The committee is imputing to me and me alone a secret knowledge of illegal events that was somehow not shared by any other official or minister in Number Ten. That is utterly incredible. That is the artifice.
This report is a charade. I was wrong to believe in the Committee or its good faith. The terrible truth is that it is not I who has twisted the truth to suit my purposes. It is Harriet Harman and her Committee.
This is a dreadful day for MPs and for democracy. This decision means that no MP is free from vendetta, or expulsion on trumped up charges by a tiny minority who want to see him or her gone from the Commons.
I do not have the slightest contempt for parliament, or for the important work that should be done by the Privileges Committee.
But for the Privileges Committee to use its prerogatives in this anti-democratic way, to bring about what is intended to be the final knife-thrust in a protracted political assassination – that is beneath contempt.
It is for the people of this country to decide who sits in parliament, not Harriet Harman.