Boris Johnson embarked on an extraordinary re-writing of history over Partygate as he gave evidence to the Covid inquiry, insisting the public’s perception of lockdown-breaching parties in No 10 was a “million miles” from the truth.
In comments that will infuriate families bereaved during the Covid pandemic, the former prime minister said the representation of repeated gatherings during the pandemic was “absolutely absurd”.
“I apologise for the offence caused, and if I had my time again of course I’d have done things differently,” Mr Johnson said. But he added: “The characterisation, the representation there has been of what civil servants and advisors were doing in No 10, has been a travesty of the truth.
“They thought they were working very hard, which they were, and I certainly thought that what we were doing was, as I’ve said before, within the rules.”
He added that “the version of events” that has entered the popular consciousness “about what is supposed to have happened in Downing Street” is “a million miles from the reality of what actually happened in No 10”.
Inquiry chair Baroness Hallet slapped down Mr Johnson’s defence of the Partygate scandal, saying that it “exacerbated” the suffering of families bereaved during the pandemic.
“One of the problems is that I’ve received a number of messages from bereaved people as I’ve travelled around the United Kingdom, and so many of them who suffered horrific grief during lockdown,” she said.
On his second marathon day at the Covid inquiry:
- Inquiry chair Baroness Hallett was forced to warn hecklers in the room not to protest during Mr Johnson’s evidence
- The inquiry heard the former PM called his own Covid rules “stupid” and referred to the government’s own face mask policy as “f***ed up”
- He backtracked on his own witness statement after being grilled over the claim the Eat Out to Help Out scheme was discussed with senior advisers
- The former PM squirmed for three minutes as he was shown all the times he used the term “let it rip” referring to Covid
- Mr Johnson admitted Dominic Cummings’s infamous Barnard Castle trip was a “bad day” and “obviously damaging” to trust in government
- He also privately criticised Test and Trace, telling his advisers one month into lockdown that the scheme was “whistling in the dark”
The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK campaign group said the sessions showed Mr Johnson did not “get the big calls right”.
The former prime minister “failed to take the pandemic seriously in early 2020 leaving us brutally unprepared, and failed to learn from his mistakes meaning that the second wave had an even higher death toll than the first”, it added.
Spokesperson Becky Kummer said: “Even when he knew measures needed to be taken to protect lives, he delayed for fear of how it might impact his reputation with certain sections of the press.”
The Liberal Democrats also condemned the former PM’s attempt to rewrite history on Partygate as “desperate”. Deputy leader Daisy Cooper told The Independent: “These parties were investigated by the police and Boris Johnson accepted a fine for breaking lockdown rules. It’s baffling that he continues to try and deceive the country.
“Boris Johnson cannot expect his apology to be taken seriously when he continues his desperate attempt to rewrite history.”
It came after Mr Johnson, who quit as an MP before he could be forced out for lying to parliament, backtracked on his own witness statement. He was grilled by inquiry counsel Hugo Keith KC over the claim he knew the controversial Eat Out to Help Out scheme was discussed with top scientists Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty before it was launched. When questioned, he backtracked on his original statement, saying on Thursday that he “assumed” it must have been discussed. Both Sir Chris and Sir Patrick have said they were blindsided by the hospitality scheme.
Mr Johnson was one of 83 people to receive 126 fines for Downing Street parties which breached the UK’s pandemic restrictions.
He was given a fixed penalty notice by the Metropolitan Police for attending his own birthday party in the Cabinet Room on June 19, 2020.
And despite his attempts to downplay Partygate before the Covid inquiry, the official Partygate report laid bare a shocking culture in Mr Johnson’s Downing Street.
It exposed booze-fuelled partying into the early hours, the wine time Friday tradition, an altercation between staff and a karaoke machine at the ready.
The 37-page report delved into 12 events, starting with a gathering in the No 10 garden on May 15 2020 when Boris Johnson brought wine and cheese from his own flat, and ending with two get-togethers behind the famous black door on April 16 2021, which was the eve of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral.
Anger over the scandal was such that it played a significant role in Mr Johnson’s fall from grace and eventual resignation.
In further evidence Mr Johnson failed to take the scale of the scandal seriously, the Covid inquiry was shown evidence he called the public fury when it came to light “insane”, telling advisers “let’s smash on”.
In a December 2021 WhatsApp, as the scandal was growing, Mr Johnson told cabinet secretary Simon Case that he was “really sorry” for the “grief” it was causing him. “This whole business is insane... we will get through it and come out on top,” he said.
Mr Case replied to the PM: “Thanks PM, it is a bit grim, but hopefully it will pass.”
And in a message that suggests he was aware of repeated gatherings in the Downing Street press office, Mr Johnson wrote back: “In retrospect we all should have told people – above all [comms chief] Lee Cain – to think about their behaviour in No10 and how it would look.
“But now we must smash on.”
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