Boris Johnson ‘acting like Trump’ to undermine Partygate probe, say Tory MPs

Former PM and allies ‘desperate’, as they suggest Sue Gray’s report could be bias

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Sunday 05 March 2023 16:37 GMT
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Partygate probe’s reliance on Sue Gray ‘surreal’ amid Labour move, Boris Johnson says

Conservative MPs have accused Boris Johnson of acting like Donald Trump in his efforts to undermine the Partygate inquiry into whether he lied to parliament.

The former prime minister is under growing pressure after the privileges committee released a report saying it would have been “obvious” to Mr Johnson that No 10 gatherings breached Covid restrictions.

Mr Johnson said it was “surreal” that the committee of MPs relied on evidence from Sue Gray – the top civil servant set to be appointed Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff.

But a privileges committee spokesperson dismissed Mr Johnson’s arguments, saying work was “not based on the Sue Gray report” but on direct witness accounts and government evidence.

Tobias Ellwood, Tory chair of the defence select committee, said: “If we now stay united and disciplined we could win the general election, but not if this latest distraction turns into a Trumpian drag anchor.”

A senior Tory MP told The Observer about the claims made by Mr Johnson and allies: “They have gone full Trump. It is wicked. Where will this end? They are desperate.” Another said Mr Johnson was “just like Trump, saying black is white, white is black”.

Sir Bob Neill, Tory chair of the all-party justice select committee, added: “It is wrong for anyone to try to undermine the work of a parliamentary committee.”

The planned move of Ms Gray – who led the Cabinet Office inquiry into lockdown-breaking parties – to a top role with Labour has been leapt on by Mr Johnson and allies as part of attempts to discredit the parliamentary inquiry.

Sir Keir has so far dodged questions about when conversations began with Ms Gray, who is expected to await the decision of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba) before starting the role.

Ms Gray is expected to say that she has only been in talks with Labour about taking up the role for “several weeks”. Labour dismissed claims that Ms Gray’s move to Sir Keir’s office proved a plot to oust the former prime minister as “ludicrous”.

Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, a supporter of Mr Johnson, suggested Ms Gray may well have embarrassing details about Tory ministers.

“She was the head of ethics and propriety, so she will know a lot of things,” he told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday. “But I truly believe she is a woman of integrity, so I’m not worried about that.”

The Tory minister also claimed Mr Johnson was a “wise man” and an “honest man”. Asked if he had showed integrity over Partygate, he said: “Yes, 100 per cent. I do not believe for one second that he knowingly misled parliament.”

Mr Heaton-Harris also said Sir Keir should publish his messages with Ms Gray to clear up any questions about her move. “I think Keir can clear this up in seconds by saying this is what we talked about at that time, there’s nothing to see here.”

Former Tory chairman Jake Berry said Ms Gray’s move to Labour gave the “appearance of bias” – telling GB News “this sort of appearance that Boris Johnson may have been subject to the biggest stitch up since the Bayeux Tapestry”.

Boris Johnson under pressure on committee inquiry
Boris Johnson under pressure on committee inquiry (Reuters)

But Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Ashworth said hiring “exceptional” Ms Gray shows how seriously the party is taking the prospect of being in government.

“Sue Gray is a woman of exceptional talent, abilities, incredibly high calibre,” he told Sky News. “I think it reveals how seriously Keir Starmer is taking our preparations for government should the British people put their trust in us at the next general election.”

Grilled on when she was approached, Mr Ashworth told BBC Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg that he had “not been privy” to discussions about hiring Ms Gray, adding: “Keir Starmer has been for several weeks now looking for someone to fell this role. She was always going to be on the list.”

Asked if he bought the idea that Ms Gray was biased, Spectator editor Fraser Nelson told the BBC: “No absolutely not, the parliamentary inquiry has found exactly the same – the facts are the facts here.”

Boris Johnson is causing headaches for Rishi Sunak
Boris Johnson is causing headaches for Rishi Sunak (Reuters)

The cross-party privileges committee said Mr Johnson may have misled the Commons multiple times as they set up a live showdown with the former PM later this month.

The MPs’ interim report – which has given him two weeks to prepare his formal response – also found that he failed to correct the record “at the earliest opportunity” and found No 10 advisers struggled to justify gatherings.

WhatsApp messages given to the inquiry show advisers “struggling” with how parties were within the rules, with one conceding an excuse “blows another great gaping hole in the PM’s account”.

The committee said: “The evidence strongly suggests that breaches of guidance would have been obvious to Mr Johnson at the time he was at the gatherings.

“There is evidence that those who were advising Mr Johnson about what to say to the press and in the House were themselves struggling to contend that some gatherings were within the rules.”

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson has also attacked Rishi Sunak’s post-Brexit deal with the EU to resolve the Northern Ireland protocol row.

Mr Johnson’s camp is said to expect that the DUP and European Research Group (ERG) will rebel against the deal in the next two weeks.

An ally of Mr Johnson circulated an image of Mr Sunak as Neville Chamberlain waving a piece of paper, suggesting the Windsor Framework was similar to the appeaser’s Munich Agreement with Hitler, according to The Sunday Times.

Mr Heaton-Harris told Sky News he would try to “cunningly” persuade Mr Johnson of the merits of the compromise deal with Brussels.

He also claimed Mr Johnson could endanger a Labour win at the next general election, dismissing the idea the former PM wanted his old job back. “If you’re a Labour politician you want to see the back of Boris Johnson … because without a shadow of doubt him campaigning for Rishi at the next general election garners more votes,” he told LBC.

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