Boris Johnson and the Privileges Committee: Key moments
For around three hours, Boris Johnson was questioned over his memories of Downing Street during lockdown and his defence of his statements to MPs, all the while protesting his innocence as the Privileges Committee sought to find out whether he deliberately misled the House of Commons.
In a packed committee room in Portcullis House, the former prime minister clashed with his interrogators as he endured a lengthy grilling about his previous statements on Downing Street gatherings.
Here are some of the key moments of Wednesday’s proceedings:
– Five lots of Boris
The committee opened with archive footage from the House of Commons chamber, with some of Mr Johnson’s key remarks to the Commons – including his answers to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s questions in December 2021 – played to the room.
For a few brief minutes, Mr Johnson’s face and words were beamed from five large screens – although the real-life Mr Johnson appeared largely disinterested, instead flicking through his bundle of papers.
– First raised eyebrows
The first set of remarks that raised eyebrows from committee members was when Mr Johnson called on the committee to publish all the evidence it had gathered “so that Parliament and public can judge for themselves”.
He told the MPs: “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.”
Those comments caused senior Conservative MP Sir Bernard Jenkin to look up, apparently startled, while committee chair Harriet Harman appeared to make eye contact with a colleague to her left as he made the comments.
– Unhappy audience
Mr Johnson had a cohort of enthusiastic supporters who stayed in the room for the majority of the proceedings.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, Sir James Duddridge, Lia Nici and Michael Fabricant were a constant presence in the room, while Labour MP Sir Chris Bryant – who recused himself from the partygate probe – sat in the corner of the room.
As proceedings continued, passing the three-hour mark, it appeared that some were getting increasingly frustrated at the committee’s line of questioning.
At one stage, as Sir Charles Walker began his questioning after a particularly testy exchange between Sir Bernard and Mr Johnson, he felt the need to object amid some mutterings at the back of the room.
“There are noises coming from the back of the room, has that stopped?” he asked.
– What if?
There were a few laughs at various stages of the proceedings, but one exchange between Mr Johnson and Sir Bernard prompted a loud chuckle from the back of the committee room.
While Sir Bernard and the former prime minister had a few slightly barbed exchanges over the course of proceedings, one in particular saw the veteran MP suggest that the former prime minister may have avoided all the trouble if he had given a fuller account to Parliament.
Mr Johnson said: “Why I believed, when I stood up on December 1, that the guidance was followed completely at all times in No 10, what picture I had in my head – and why that doesn’t conflict with that picture (of Lee Cain’s leaving do) – the answer is that I knew from my direct personal experience that we were doing a huge event to stop the spread of Covid within the building.
“We had sanitisers, windows were kept open, we had people working outdoors wherever they could, we had Zoom meetings, we had restrictions on the number of people in rooms, we had Perspex screens between desks and – above all – we had testing, regular testing, which went way beyond what the guidance described, and which, in my view, helped mitigate the difficulties we had in maintaining perfect social distancing.”
Sir Bernard said: “I’m bound to say that if you said all that at the time to the House of Commons, we probably wouldn’t be sitting here. But you didn’t.”
At another moment, Sir Bernard also prompted loud laughter from those watching proceedings when – to what seemed like a harrumph from Mr Johnson over the role of Sue Gray’s evidence in proceedings and a debate over one point of contention, he said: “We’re not relying on Sue Gray’s evidence, isn’t that ironic.”
Committee chair Harriet Harman struck up quite an effective partnership with Sir Bernard, seated to her left.
At one point, Sir Bernard showed something on his phone to Ms Harman as Mr Johnson gave evidence.
At another stage, she turned and whispered something – hand cupped over mouth – to Sir Bernard, smiling as she did so.
But Mr Johnson’s long answers appeared to test her patience. Early in the proceedings, as Mr Johnson was quizzed on one of the gatherings, she intervened to appeal to him to give “succinct” answers.
At another stage, when Mr Johnson pressed the committee chair for evidence that some aides, including then-director of communications Jack Doyle, had expressed doubts over whether Covid guidance was followed, she replied curtly to him: “It is in the WhatsApps.”
Repeatedly, she intervened if she thought the former primer minister was wandering off track.
– ‘No great vice’
In one particularly tense exchange with Sir Bernard, Mr Johnson was asked about his comments that it was “no great vice” to rely on political advisers for assurances before making statements to the House.
Sir Bernard expressed surprise that Mr Johnson, if there was even “the thinnest scintilla of doubt” about whether rules were followed, would not have sought out advise from civil servants or government lawyers.
“If I was accused of law-breaking and I had to give undertakings to Parliament… I would want the advice of a lawyer,” Sir Bernard told him.
Mr Johnson, voice rising and finger jabbing, resented the question.
Told by the senior Tory MP that he did not ask for further advice, Mr Johnson said: “This is complete nonsense, I mean, complete nonsense.
“I asked the relevant people. They were senior people. They had been working very hard.”