The government’s line yesterday on what Boris Johnson knew about Chris Pincher’s behaviour kept changing. Today, it’s quite hard to find anything that could reasonably be described as a ‘line’. More of a messy scribble. After Simon McDonald’s explosive intervention this morning, the ‘line’ had to change from Boris Johnson not being informed of any specific complaints, because now there was a report of an official complaint which McDonald alleges the Prime Minister was indeed briefed on. So what did it change to?
As ever in these circumstances, Michael Ellis, the minister for defending the indefensible and holding lines even as they change, made his way into the chamber to answer an urgent question on the matter. His first answer was to explain – at some length and with little relevance – the way in which standards in public life are defined and enforced in this country. It was almost like an episode of Just A Minute, but with a much longer timeframe and a challenge to be as boring as possible. After getting a verbal hammering from Angela Rayner, Ellis responded with the new line. And that was that Boris Johnson had forgotten that there had been earlier allegations about Pincher.
Ellis told MPs:
I have made some initial inquiries, subject to further assessment, but in the limited amount of time available, my understanding is as follows. In October 2019, officials raised concerns with the permanent secretary concerning the member in question. The permanent secretary commissioned work to establish facts. That was undertaken on his behalf by the Cabinet Office. This exercise reported in due course to the then permanent secretary who had agreed its terms, the exercise established that while the minister meant no harm, what had occurred caused a high level of discomfort. This is what the exercise established. The minister apologised, and those raising the concern accepted the resolution.
The Prime Minister was made aware of this issue in late 2019. He was told that the permanent secretary had taken the necessary action. No issue therefore arose about remaining as a minister, and therefore last week when fresh allegations arose, the Prime Minister did not immediately recall the conversation in late 2019 about the incident. As soon as he was reminded, the Number 10 press office corrected their public lines so the position is quite clear. Further inquiries will be made but the position is the Prime Minister acted with probity at all times. It is not appropriate whether in public life or private life to act on unsubstantiated rumour.
There was a great deal of laughing at the various points Ellis made. And the Tory MPs who had decided to endure the ordeal of turning up to this question all appeared to groan inwardly. The first Conservative to speak was William Wragg, a long-time critic of Johnson. He suggested that there wasn’t much point in the rigorous codes Ellis had described if the people in public life didn’t abide by them. John Penrose, a former minister, said it appeared that No. 10 had ‘not been honest’, adding:
‘How many more of the seven principles (of behaviour in public life) are they going to have to breach before my honourable friend will stand up and say enough is enough?’
The No. 10 press office is becoming a focal point for this row, with the Prime Minister’s official spokesman being asked at today’s lobby briefing ‘are you planning on telling us the truth today?’ His response was that he provided the information ‘available to me at the time of each briefing’. Of course Tory MPs aren’t really angry with the staff working in the press office – they’re angry with the senior figures leading on strategy, including David Canzini and Steve Barclay, who were supposed to be tightening up the Downing Street operation. And they’re most of all angry and exhausted by Boris Johnson himself. Unlike the Prime Minister, they aren’t going to be able to forget this latest incident, or all the ones that have come before.
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