What did Boris Johnson tell MPs about the alleged 13 November Downing Street party?

31 January 2022

Following the publication of Sue Gray’s initial update on her report into the alleged parties in Downing Street during lockdown, there has been speculation about whether or not Boris Johnson misled Parliament over an alleged party on 13 November 2020. 

Ms Gray’s update said that among the events she investigated were two “gatherings” held on 13 November 2020. It also said these gatherings are among those now being investigated by police.

The Prime Minister gave a statement to the House of Commons shortly after the update on Ms Gray's report was published on 31 January 2022. Ongoing police investigations into the allegations mean her full report has not yet been published. During the debate which followed, a number of MPs asked if Mr Johnson had previously misled Parliament over the allegations—with several questions centring on comments made by the PM on 8 December 2021 about events on 13 November 2020.

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What did MPs say?

Labour MP Catherine West said: “As the Prime Minister will recall, on the 8th of December in Prime Minister’s Questions I asked him, ‘was there a party in Downing Street on the 13th of November?’

“And now the report says… that there was a gathering in the Number 10 Downing Street flat, a gathering in Number 10 Downing Street on the departure of a special adviser. Did he inadvertently mislead this house?” 

Mr Johnson replied: “I stick by what I said to her [on 8 December] and she should wait, if she cares about democracy and due process—she should wait until the inquiry has been concluded.” 

Fellow Labour MP Karl Turner also said: “We now know that there is a criminal investigation into the party that took place on the 13th of November 2020, in his flat, to celebrate the exit of Mr [Dominic] Cummings.

“On the 8th of December last year, he came to that dispatch box and flatly denied the very idea that any such party had taken place. He is shaking his head. 

“In answer to my honourable friend the member for Hornsey and Wood Green [Ms West] he said it had not happened. Now he's inadvertently, Mr Speaker, misled the house. So the very least he should do is get to that dispatch box and correct the record.”

Another Labour MP, Dr Rupa Huq, said the update from Ms Gray “says that there is an investigation of a Downing Street party on the 13th of November 2020. Why did he tell my honourable friend for Hornsey and Wood Green [Ms West] on the 8th of December that no such gathering took place?" 

Mr Johnson’s response on 8 December to Ms West’s question has also been highlighted by journalists online

What did Mr Johnson actually say on 8 December? 

On 8 December 2021, during Prime Minister’s Questions, Ms West asked Mr Johnson: “Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether there was a party in Downing Street on 13 November?”

Mr Johnson replied: “No, but I am sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.” You can watch a video of the exchange on the Parliament website.

While some people appear to have taken Mr Johnson’s “no” as a denial that a party was held on 13 November, it’s not clear from his response that that was the case. The way that Ms West’s question was asked could mean that Mr Johnson was instead declining to “tell the House whether there was a party”. 

Furthermore, Ms West asked Mr Johnson specifically about a “party”. The report collated by Ms Gray describes all the events she investigated as “gatherings”, including the two listed on 13 November—so even if Mr Johnson had said on 8 December that there was no party, that would not necessarily have been contradicted by Ms Gray’s findings.

Some have noted that, at the start of Prime Minister’s Questions on 8 December, Mr Johnson issued a more general statement, in which he said: "I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken." 

However, at that point Mr Johnson appeared to be referring specifically to the allegations of parties in the run-up to Christmas in Downing Street, after footage of staff laughing about a party emerged.

Misleading Parliament is a serious matter

While we’ve focused here on the specific issue of what Mr Johnson said on 8 December 2021, as it’s been the focus of significant debate, many more questions remain after the publication of Ms Gray’s update and the subsequent debate. We’ve written more about the allegations of parties at Downing Street during lockdown previously.The full report by Ms Gray remains unpublished pending police investigations, and while that continues to be the case, uncertainty around some of the events in question will persist.  

However, it’s worth being clear that misleading Parliament is a very serious matter. As this story continues to unfold, MPs of all parties may have to decide whether they can reconcile what has been said previously with the findings of the investigations into events in Downing Street.

Image courtesy of UK Parliament/Jess Taylor, via Flickr. 

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