Boris comes out fighting over Partygate in committee showdown

There were a number of days over a period of 20 months when gatherings took place in Downing Street that went past the point where they could be said to be necessary for work purposes. That was wrong. I bitterly regret it. I understand public anger, and I continue to apologise for what happened on my watch. I take full responsibility. But as the Committee has said, the purpose of this inquiry is not to re-open so-called partygate. It is to discover whether or not I lied to parliament – wittingly misled colleagues and the country – about what I knew and believed about those gatherings when I said that the Rules and the Guidance had been followed at Number ten. I am here before you to say, hand on heart, that I did not lie to the House. When those statements were made, they were made in good faith and on the basis of what I honestly knew and believed at the time.

When this inquiry was set up I was completely confident that you would find nothing to show I knew or believed anything else – as indeed you have not. I was confident not because there has been some kind of cover-up. I was confident because I knew that is what I believed, and that is why I said it. To understand why I believed it you have to go back to a time before the Sue Gray report, before the police investigation; back to a time where – as the evidence before the Committee shows – there was a near universal belief at No 10 that the Rules and Guidance were being complied with. That is the general belief that has been uncovered by your evidence.

It was that belief that governed what I said in the House, and as soon as it was clear that I was wrong, and as soon as the Sue Gray investigation and the Metropolitan Police investigation had concluded, I came to the House of Commons and I corrected the record, as I promised I would. I clearly could not have anticipated the outcome by coming earlier, because I genuinely did not know what the outcome would be, and was deeply shocked when fines were issued – not least since I had been told on at least a couple of occasions, by Sue Gray, that she did not think the threshold of criminality had been reached. I believe the Committee’s work helps to explain why I was so shocked.

You have been investigating this for more than 10 months, and I thank you for what you have done. You have had access to a vast body of evidence. You have collected and reviewed hundreds of pages of transcripts of Sue Gray’s interviews, and you have analysed many thousands of contemporary emails and whtasapp messages and other material. You have found nothing to show that I was warned in advance that events in Number ten were illegal, in fact nothing to show that anyone raised any anxieties with me about any event whether before or after it had taken place. If there had been such anxiety about a rule-breaking event in Number ten, it would unquestionably have been escalated to me.

We all knew how vital it was to maintain public confidence in the fight against covid, that we should do what we were asking the public to do. There is only one exception, and that is the testimony of Dominic Cummings, which is unsupported by any documentary evidence, and which plainly cannot be relied upon. He clearly has every motive to lie.

Not only has the Committee found nothing incriminating, it has gathered a huge amount of evidence which demonstrates, very clearly, that those working at No. 10 shared my belief that the Rules and Guidance were being followed, and that I received assurances that there was no Rule-breaking at No 10.

The best and fairest course now would be for the committee to publish all the evidence it has assembled, so that parliament and public can judge for themselves. Despite my repeated requests the committee has refused to do this, as investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury it has elected only to publish the evidence which it considers incriminating and not the evidence which I rely on and which answers the charges. And despite assurances that we would be permitted to add material that we rely on into the core bundle, published today, late last night we were told that the committee was not willing to publish a large number of extracts which I rely upon in my defence. That is manifestly unfair.

Instead, and in the absence of any evidence that I deliberately misled parliament, the Committee is trying to mount an argument that I ‘must have known’ that the guidance was not being followed, and that buried in my head as we were fighting covid was an unarticulated belief that even if we were following the rules, we were somehow failing to follow the guidance, and you have in your 4th report suggested that it must have been ‘obvious’ to me because you have the photographs. So let me deal with this point head on, because it is nonsense.

Those photos have been churned through the media for more than a year, and it seems to be the view of the committee, and, sadly, many members of the public, that they show me attending rule-breaking parties, where no one was social distancing. They show nothing of the kind. They show me giving a few words of thanks, at a work event, for a departing colleague. They show me with my red box, passing on the way to another meeting or heading back to my flat to carry on working sometimes late into the night. They show a few people standing together, as permitted by the guidance, where full social distancing is not possible and where mitigating measures are taken. They show events which I was never fined for attending.

I know the public will have had the impression that these were covert photos, with their sinister pixillations, that have been obtained by the media. The vast majority were in fact taken by the official Number Ten photographer. To say that we would have held illicit events in Number ten, while allowing those events to be immortalised by an official photographer, is staggeringly implausible. There are a couple of photos were the event is captured on zoom, as well as by the official photographer – which only reinforces the point. If we had an event that we believed was illicit or unauthorised, why would we have it on zoom, when you never quite know who is on the other side?

Most important of all – if it was obvious to me that these events were contrary to the guidance and the rules, then it must have been equally obvious to dozens of others, including the most senior officials in the country – all of them, like me, responsible for drawing up those rules, and it must have been obvious to others in the building including the current PM.

On the contrary, the overwhelming evidence, which you have assembled, is that these individuals believed that the rules and the guidance were being complied with, and what is so telling is the number of officials who say the same thing, and the total silence of the written or electronic record about concerns that anyone wanted to raise with me.

It would be one thing if the committee had come here today and said, look, here are the emails or here are the whatsapps that show you were warned about rule-breaking before you made your statements to the house. You haven’t got any such evidence because that never happened.

But if you now say instead that it must have been ‘obvious’ that we were going against the rules and the guidance, then let us be clear about what you are saying. You are not only accusing me of lying, you are accusing all those civil servants, advisers and MPs of lying about what they believed at the time to be going on; and as far as I know you are not giving any of them the chance to explain themselves with their own oral evidence. I don’t think you seriously mean to accuse those individuals of lying, and I don’t think you can seriously mean to accuse me of lying.

Now everyone knows that there are some features of this proceeding that are extremely peculiar. I have the utmost respect for the chair, but she has said some things about this matter – before reading the evidence – which plainly and wrongly prejudge the very issue on which she is adjudicating. I am going to put her earlier remarks down to the general cut and thrust of politics, and trust in the impartiality that the committee insists upon in its report.

The Committee is in fact supposed to be inquiring strictly into what I said about rule-breaking rather than non-statutory guidance, so much of this interrogation is theoretically irrelevant. But I am going to take all that in my stride, because I believe it is your job – in which I want to help you – to understand why I said what I said to parliament and whether I deliberately set out to deceive, and I emphatically did not. Your first concern is that I may have knowingly or recklessly deceived parliament on 1 and 8 Dec 2020 when I said that the rules had not been broken and that the guidance had been followed completely in number ten.

When I said those words I was not trying to cover up or conceal anything. I said what I said in good faith, based on what I honestly knew and reasonably believed at the time. That belief, what was in my head, was based on my understanding of the Rules and the Guidance. That did not mean that I believed that social distancing was complied with perfectly. That is because I and others in the building did not believe that it was necessary or possible to have a 2 meter or after june 24 2020 i metre electrified force field around every human being. Indeed, that is emphatically not what the guidance prescribes.

It specifically says that social distancing should be maintained where possible, having regard to the work environment, and it is clear that in Number ten we had real difficulties in both working efficiently and at speed and in maintaining perfect social distancing. It is a cramped, narrow, 18th century townhouse. We had no choice but to meet, day in, day out, seven days a week, in an unrelenting battle against covid. I had to call meetings on the spot, and to take a great many high-speed decisions.

Yes, we certainly did have social distancing. We avoided physical contact, we gave way to each other in the corridors or on the stairs, gave each other as wide a berth as we could, but it would have been impossible to have a drill sergeant measuring the distance between us at all hours of the day and night. So as the guidance prescribes, we had mitigations. When I spoke about the guidance being followed, I was thinking of all the things we did to stop the spread of covid, given where we were working.

We had large numbers working from home, and many meetings at least partly on zoom. We had limits on the numbers per room, we had sanitiser dispensers everywhere. We had signs on the walls telling you which way to walk. We kept windows open and we worked outside as much as possible. Because of the particular difficulties caused by the working environment, we had regular testing and a whole testing system set up on the third floor that went way beyond what was required in the guidance.

So if you say, how could i stand up in parliament and be so categorical about following the guidance, what was I thinking of – that is what I was thinking of. I know that you will point to the photos and then to the guidance, and you will say it must have been obvious that the guidance was being breached. But that is simply not true. My beliefs and my remarks in parliament were indeed based on my knowledge of those events. But you have to understand how I saw them, and what I saw during the period I was there.

The vast majority of the events relied upon by the committee are events I attended for ten or 15 minutes, perhaps a maximum of 25, in one case, to say farewell to a departing colleague. I know that people around the country will look at those events and think they look very like the kind of events that we – I – were forbidding to everyone else. But I will believe to the day I die that it was my job to thank staff for what they had done, and especially during a crisis like covid, which kept coming back, which seemed to have no end, and when people’s morale did I am afraid begin to sink.

But never mind what I think. The more important point is that the police agreed. They did not find that my attendance at any of these farewell gatherings was against the rules. I obviously did not know at the time that any of the events later escalated beyond what was lawful after I left.

There is of course one event for which I and the current PM received FPNs. But it never occurred to me – or, I think the current PM at the time – that the event was not in compliance with the rules and the guidance. At about 2.22 pm on 19 June 2020 I went into the Cabinet Room, where I worked, after getting back from a long external visit. I stood at my desk briefly before another covid meeting began, and had a kind of salad. A number of officials came in to wish me a happy birthday. No one sang. The famous Union Jack cake remained in its tupperware box, unnoticed by me, and was later discovered and eaten by my private secretaries. We talked, as you would expect, about covid and what we were doing to beat the pandemic.

It is a measure of how innocent we thought this meeting was that an exaggerated version was briefed to the Times – with singing and cake-eating – and yet nothing untoward was apparently detected either by the reporter or by millions of eagle-eyed readers. So when I spoke in the Commons it did not for one second occur to me that this event – the one event for which I was fined – would later be found to be somehow against the rules, and the same goes for all of the events I attended.

My belief was that we were following the rules and the guidance to the best of our ability, given the circumstances, and that was what the guidance required. You may now say that I was being obtuse, or oblivious, and that we should have enforced social distancing more ruthlessly – and we can argue that back and forth. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. We are talking about what I believed at the time.

As for the event of the 18 Dec 2020, in the press room, I was not there but my honest belief that it was within the rules was based on what I was told by senior advisers. The fact that this was my honest belief is supported by the fact that so many others honestly believed that we were doing nothing wrong. It is abundantly clear from the evidence produced by the committee that everyone was operating with the same understanding of the rules and the guidance. If you want further evidence of what was going on in my head, look at the whatsapp to Jack Doyle, where I positively urge him to get the truth out to the public. It seemed then so unfair to me – based on what I had been told – that the event was being presented as a purely social gathering on what I knew had been a monumentally busy day for the media department, when they were coping both with the emergence that day of the Kent variant of covid and what some saw as the risk of a no-deal Brexit. That was why I was inclined to believe that this event must be in line with the rules and the guidance.

That is why I said what I said on Dec 1. As for my statements on Dec 8, the Committee is concerned that I may have misled the House when I said that I was repeatedly assured that the event was in accordance with the rules. I don’t understand this point. You can see from the evidence that I received these assurances more than once and from more than one person. My statement was entirely accurate.

The committee criticises the fact that I had not received assurances in relation to the guidance. But I never said that I had. I said what I said about the guidance based on my own experience and belief. The committee is critical of the fact that I did not receive assurances in respect of any event other than the Dec 18 event. But I never said that I had.

The committee seems at times to be saying that I should not be relying on the advice of political advisers or even officials. This is ridiculous. I was PM of the UK. I was trying to run the country during a pandemic. On the evening in question I was dealing with omicron, and the growing clamour for restrictions on another Christmas. I could not drop what I was doing, get up and go and institute a personal investigation into what sounded like a Daily Mirror try-on about an event that was now almost a year old.

I had to rely on, and was fully entitled to rely on, what I was told by my senior trusted advisers. Government would be paralyzed if ministers were not able to do so.

Finally, the Committee criticises the manner in which I corrected the record. I corrected the record on the day of Sue Gray’s final report and six days after the completion of the Police investigation. If the Committee’s view is that I should have come before the House, and provided an inevitably incomplete account while a police or Government investigation was ongoing, including into events I hadn’t even attended, I fundamentally disagree.

At all times I was entirely transparent with the House. I made it clear that I did not intend to comment on any of the factual matters until the investigations had been concluded. I kept the House regularly updated, and as soon as the investigations were complete, I provided a full correction of my honest but inadvertently misleading statements. I apologise for inadvertently misleading the house but to say that I did it recklessly or deliberately is completely untrue, as the evidence shows.

Whatever we got wrong, I believe that officials in No. 10 and the Cabinet Office, and indeed in all Whitehall departments, should be immensely proud of their efforts to protect this country from a loathsome disease. When I point out to this committee that this disease almost killed me, it is only to stress how seriously I took the measures we needed to stop it spreading, as I believe did everyone in Downing Street.

It was those officials who organised and took the country through the lockdowns which, whatever people may say about them now, were essential for public health.

It was those officials who procured the vaccines, who made sure that this was the first country in the world to put an approved and effective vaccine in the arm of a patient, and it was those officials who helped mastermind the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe.

It was thanks to those officials that we were able to come out of lockdown faster than any other European country, with all the social and economic benefits that entailed, and still to have a lower excess mortality rate than many other comparable countries.

I am proud to have known and worked with those officials, during one of the most difficult times we can remember. I am proud to have given them leadership, and that is what I believe I was doing at every one of the events in question. And I trust that the committee will be fair to them, fair to me, fair to the evidence about what we and I knew and believed, and conclude that I did not wittingly mislead the House of Commons and that no contempt has been committed.