Boris Johnson could be ousted from power if new Ministerial Code breaches are alleged over Downing Street’s changing story about the Chris Pincher scandal.
At first, the prime minister’s office claimed that “no official complaints [about Pincher] were ever made”.
But McDonald of Salford, a crossbench peer who was formerly (as Simon McDonald) Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has blown that – and subsequent li(n)es out of the water.
In a letter to Kathryn Stone, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, he stated [boldings mine]: “This is not true. In the summer of 2019, shortly after he was appointed minister of state at the Foreign Office, a group of officials complained to me about Mr Pincher’s behaviour. I discussed the matter with the relevant official at the Cabinet Office. (In substance, the allegations were similar to those made about his behaviour at the Carlton Club.) An investigation upheld the complaint; Mr Pincher apologised and promised not to repeat the inappropriate behaviour. There was no repetition at the FCO before he left seven months later.”
The letter added that a BBC website report stated: “Downing Street has said Boris Johnson was not aware of any specific allegations when he appointed Mr Pincher deputy chief whip in February,” then added: “By 4 July, the BBC website reflected a change in No 10’s line: ‘The prime minister’s official spokesman said Mr Johnson knew of “allegations that were either resolved or did not progress to a formal complaint”, adding that “it was deemed not appropriate to stop an appointment simply because of unsubstantiated allegations”.’
“The original No 10 line is not true and the modification is still not accurate. Mr Johnson was briefed in person about the initiation and outcome of the investigation. There was a ‘formal complaint’. Allegations were ‘resolved’ only in the sense that the investigation was completed; Mr Pincher was not exonerated. To characterise the allegations as ‘unsubstantiated’ is therefore wrong.
“I am aware that [it] is unusual to write to you and simultaneously publicise the letter. I am conscious of the duty owed to the target of an investigation but I act out of my duty towards the victims. Mr Pincher deceived me and others in 2019. He cannot be allowed to use the confidentiality of the process three years ago to pursue his predatory behaviour in other contexts.”
He didn’t say Boris Johnson had been lying in his letter, but in a subsequent interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he might as well have: “I think they need to come clean. I think that the language is ambiguous, the sort of telling the truth and crossing your fingers at the same time and hoping that people are not too forensic in their subsequent questioning and I think that is not working.”
Stone isn’t – technically – the right person to have received Lord McDonald’s letter; she investigates complaints about breaches of the code of conduct for MPs and, although Pincher’s conduct in 2019 probably would have been in breach of that, McDonald was really objecting to what No 10 is saying about the matter now.
It would have been more appropriate to write to the Downing Street ethics adviser – but of course there isn’t one; Lord Geidt resigned last month and hasn’t been replaced.
The peer’s revelations have triggered a slew of new accusations against Boris Johnson and his administration.
Lib Dem deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “Boris Johnson needs to own up to his web of lies and finally come clean today. Every day this carries on our politics gets dragged further through the mud.”
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “The prime minister knew about the seriousness of these complaints but decided to promote this man to a senior position in government anyway. He refused to act and then lied about what he knew.
“Boris Johnson is dragging British democracy through the muck. His appalling judgement has made Westminster a less safe place to work.”
It became apparent that Downing Street had not even provided the government’s spokesperson-of-the-day with the facts, when Dominic Raab tried, on the Today programme, to push the line that Boris Johnson had not been briefed about disciplinary action against Pincher.
Himself a former foreign secretary, Raab said he had spoken with Johnson over the last 24 hours and had been assured that the prime minister had not been briefed.
Then Lord McDonald appeared on the same programme and categorically stated that Johnson had been told everything at the time.
So Raab’s story changed by the time he got to LBC radio: “There was a review, an investigation if you like … to decide whether a formal disciplinary action or an investigation and process was warranted.
“The review, conducted under the auspices of Sir Simon – now Lord – McDonald was that disciplinary action was not warranted. That doesn’t mean that inappropriate behaviour didn’t take place. We were clear that what happened was inappropriate, but we resolved it without going for a formal disciplinary process.”
Raab said he told Pincher “in no uncertain terms” that his conduct had been unacceptable.
So Raab was saying that the complaint against Pincher had been upheld, but that did not mean he was guilty – even though Raab himself had told the MP that his conduct had been unacceptable.
Does that make any sense to you?
It didn’t make sense to Susanna Reid on Good Morning Britain, who grilled Raab over his misuse of language:
It seems this cack-handed handling of a serious matter has been the last straw for many backbench Tory MPs, who are now saying Johnson would lose a vote of no confidence if it took place today.
And they are acting to change the rules of the 1922 Committee to allow another confidence vote to take place.
Tory Johnson critic Sir Roger Gale said: “Mr Johnson has for three days now been sending ministers – in one case a cabinet minister – out to defend the indefensible, effectively to lie on his behalf. That cannot be allowed to continue.
“This prime minister has trashed the reputation of a proud and honourable party for honesty and decency and that is not acceptable.
“It is so blatant a lie it has to be acted upon as swiftly as possible by my party.”
John Penrose, the former “anti-corruption tsar” who quit over Sue Gray’s Partygate report, has expanded on why Lord McDonald’s letter is so explosive:
“This is dynamite. Honesty is one of 7 Nolan Principles of integrity in public life & at the core of the Ministerial Code so a) #10 not telling the truth is another serious breach & b) the PM’s promised reset has no credibility because their behaviour hasn’t changed at all.”
This may explain why Tory backbenchers are after another “no confidence” vote.
Meanwhile, the business of government takes a back seat once more as Boris Johnson again scrabbles to save his own wretched skin.
Some Parliamentary reporters are already suggesting that this is the end of the road for Johnson – but he’s a slippery character. I’ll report more developments as they appear.
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