House is investigating whether Boris Johnson misled MPs on parties breaking the rules in Downing Street, at a gathering in his private flat Observer understands.
Follow-up exchanges with witnesses working with the inquiry are now taking place as the Privileges Committee, headed by Labor grandee Harriet Harman, works its way through a huge consignment of evidence handed over by the government late last year.
One focus of this became the so-called “Abba Party” held at Johnson’s flat above 11 Downing Street on 13 November 2020, a gathering that included food, alcohol and music reportedly so loud it could be heard downstairs in the press office Could have done. Johnson, then Prime Minister, is known to have attended for at least part of the evening.
The gathering was not investigated by senior civil servant Sue Gray, who investigated reports of rule breaking during the Covid lockdown. Importantly, however, it is now central to the privilege inquiry as Johnson was asked about it directly in the House of Commons. His response, which he stands by, was that “whatever happened, guidance was followed and rules were followed at all times”.
It is one of four specific denials of rule-breaking by Johnson to MPs that the committee is examining. At the time of the flat gathering, the second national lockdown was in force which required people to stay at home. Except for permitted exceptions, indoor gatherings of two or more people from other households were banned, including “as reasonably necessary … for work purposes”.
The meeting came hours after two of Johnson’s most senior advisers, Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, left after losing a power struggle with Johnson’s then-fiancée and now wife, Carrie Johnson.
Gray’s report states that “a meeting was held” at the flat to discuss “the handling of his departure” and was attended by five special advisers. Johnson joined them at about 8 o’clock. However, Gray said that he had only gathered limited information as he was hindered by the Metropolitan Police starting their own investigation into the rule-breaking. Once the police had finished, Gray concluded that it was “not appropriate or proportionate” to return to the incident.
Cummings, now a staunch critic of Johnson and his wife, has since said that he was appalled by the fact that the gathering was not investigated sooner. “Dozens of people downstairs could hear it, so the police only had to interview one of them,” he said in an interview. “You don’t have a work meeting, at the top of No. 10, where the music is so loud you can hear it in the fucking press office.”
Johnson’s denial that rules were broken flat that evening means it is key to the privileges committee’s work on whether MPs were misled. It has also emerged that all witnesses working in the investigation have continued to co-operate, despite the fact that their identities may be revealed to the former prime minister when he is asked to respond to the claims against him. Names will only be omitted in “exceptional circumstances”, but it is understood no witnesses have yet asked for their names to be redacted.
The committee is made up of seven MPs including four Tories. While its report was commissioned in April, its investigation was superseded by the release of information by the government in November. Whatever its findings, the report will become a bone of contention in the Commons as MPs will have to vote on any recommended approvals.
It comes with the Met urging it to reopen its investigation into the Partygate scandal, which raised questions about the force’s initial investigation. The deputy chairman of the London Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee has written to the Met Commissioner, Mark Rowley, asking whether new information is being taken into account “when deciding whether to reopen the investigation” into Downing Street lockdown parties .