Johnson admits to ‘male-dominated’ No 10 but downplays claims of toxic culture

Boris Johnson giving evidence before the inquiry (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)
Boris Johnson giving evidence before the inquiry (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

Boris Johnson admitted his top team was too “male-dominated” as he defended his Downing Street operation from claims it had a “toxic” atmosphere.

The former prime minister was presented with claims – including from former top civil servant Helen MacNamara – that Number 10 was a dysfunctional working environment and former adviser Dominic Cummings contributed to a “toxic” working culture.

Facing his first day of evidence in Baroness Heather Hallett’s Covid inquiry, Mr Johnson sought to play down some of the inflammatory language contained in released WhatsApp messages while insisting that any administration under similar pressures would have behaved in the same way.

He told inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith KC he would make a “distinction between the type of language used and the decision-making processes of the Government and what we got done”.

A WhatsApp message shown to former prime minister Boris Johnson as he gave evidence
A WhatsApp message shown to former prime minister Boris Johnson as he gave evidence (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

He said: “And I would submit that any powerful and effective government, and I think of the Thatcher government or the Blair government, has a lot of challenging and competing characters whose views about each other might not be fit to print but who get an awful lot done – and that’s what we did.

“I think that actually what you’re looking at, in all this stuff, is a lot of highly talented, highly motivated people who are stricken with anxiety about what is happening about the pandemic, who are doing their best and who, like all human beings under great stress and great anxiety about themselves and their own performance, will be inclined to be critical of others.”

Mr Johnson said that would be the “same” under any other administration.

“It would not have been right, if we’d had a load of WhatsApps saying, ‘Aren’t we doing brilliantly, folks? Isn’t this going well?’. I think your criticisms might have been, frankly, even more pungent.”

Asked about claims he called then-health secretary Matt Hancock “totally fucking hopeless” during the pandemic, Mr Johnson said: “The country as a whole had notable achievements during the crisis. My job was to try to get a load of quite disparate, quite challenging characters to keep going and through a long period and to keep doing their level best to protect the country. That was my job.”

He also defended keeping Mr Hancock in his post despite pressure from Mr Cummings to sack him.

Mr Johnson said: “If you’re prime minister, you are constantly being lobbied by somebody to sack somebody else. It’s just what, I’m afraid, happens and it’s part of life.”

He acknowledged Mr Cummings had a “low opinion” of Mr Hancock but “I thought he was wrong”.

He said: “I stuck by the health secretary. I thought the health secretary worked very hard.”

He said Mr Hancock “may have had defects” but “I thought that he was doing his best in very difficult circumstances and I thought he was a good communicator”.

Pressed on another claim that civil servants did not want to join the Number 10 team because of the wider culture, Mr Johnson denied any knowledge of it and said Downing Street had not had a problem recruiting officials.

Mr Johnson giving evidence on Wednesday
Mr Johnson giving evidence on Wednesday (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

“I was not aware of that. Secondly, I didn’t see any sign of that. I saw brilliantly talented people,” he said.

But he conceded his top team was too “male-dominated”.

“I think that the gender balance of my team should have been better,” he told the inquiry.

“I think sometimes during the pandemic too many meetings were too male-dominated, if I’m absolutely honest with you.”