UK

Johnson said he wanted a ‘disputatious’ No 10 amid claims of ‘toxic’ culture

Former prime minister Boris Johnson leaving Dorland House in London, after giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry (Jordan Pettitt/PA)
Former prime minister Boris Johnson leaving Dorland House in London, after giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry (Jordan Pettitt/PA) Former prime minister Boris Johnson leaving Dorland House in London, after giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry (Jordan Pettitt/PA)

Boris Johnson said he had tried to create a “disputatious” culture inside Number 10 where people felt able to speak “bluntly”, as he defended claims Downing Street had a “toxic” atmosphere.

He said he could not recall either former Cabinet Secretary Lord Sedwill or his successor and incumbent Simon Case raising concerns about behaviour at the top of his administration.

The former prime minister, during the first of a two-day evidence session at the UK Covid-19 inquiry, also said that he had apologised to former senior official Helen MacNamara over Dominic Cummings’ expletive-laden WhatsApp messages about her.

The culture inside Downing Street was the focus of a significant portion of the questioning by lead counsel Hugo Keith KC.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Covid-19 pandemic inquiry Boris Johnson said he had apologised to former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

It comes after several witnesses, including Ms MacNamara and former health secretary Matt Hancock, told Lady Hallett’s probe of concerns regarding the operation inside Number 10 during the pandemic.

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 also insisted that he wanted people to speak their mind in meetings.

“I knew that some people were difficult – I didn’t know how difficult they were, clearly.

“But I thought it was better on the whole for the country to have a disputatious culture in No 10 than one that was quietly acquiescent to whatever I, or the scientists, said.”

He told the inquiry: “Nobody came to me and said ‘people have got god complexes and there’s internecine warfare going on here’.

“What I wanted were meetings in which people could speak their minds without fear of being embarrassed or being seen to say something foolish.

“And that’s one of the reasons, by the way, why I sometimes spoke bluntly and freely in meetings. I wanted to give everybody cover to do the same. I wanted people to feel that they could, if they had an idea, that I wanted to hear it.”

He told Mr Keith 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 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.”

The inquiry has been told by witnesses that Mr Johnson’s No 10 operation was chaotic and dysfunctional.

In July 2020, Mr Case said “I’ve never seen a bunch of people less well-equipped to run a country” in a message to Sir Mark Sedwill, who was cabinet secretary at the time.

Asked about claims he called then-health secretary Matt Hancock “totally f****** 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 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.”

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

The hearing also saw Mr Johnson concede that his top team was too “male-dominated”, as he expressed regret at his failure to call out Mr Cummings’ criticism of Ms MacNamara.

WhatsApp messages shared with the inquiry revealed that Mr Cummings had labelled Ms MacNamara “that c***” and said he would “handcuff her and escort her” from Downing Street.

“I don’t care how it’s done but that woman must be out of our hair – we cannot keep dealing with this horrific meltdown of the British state while dodging stilettos from that c***,” he also wrote.

Mr Johnson said: “I don’t remember seeing it at the time, but I must have seen it because I was on the group

“I have rang Helen MacNamara to apologise to her for not having called it out.”

Mr Johnson suggested during Wednesday’s session the tone of the WhatsApp exchanges disclosed to the inquiry reflected the “agony” being felt in the country and the “very frazzled” people struggling to respond to the pandemic.

“It was a very difficult, very challenging period. People were getting – as you can see from the WhatsApps – they were getting very frazzled because they were frustrated,” he said.

“Covid kept coming at us in wave after wave and it was very, very hard to fight it.

“People were doing their level best. When people are critical of the guy at the top or they are critical of each other, that’s a reflection of the difficulty of the circumstances.”