Boris Johnson has said he “briefly attended” Downing Street lockdown gatherings but didn’t know at the time that they “went on far longer than was necessary”.
The prime minister said he had attended to thank staff because it’s “one of essential duties of leadership” and to keep morale as high as possible”.
He told the Commons he had “no knowledge of those subsequent proceedings because I wasn’t there” – and claimed to have been “vindicated” by the report’s findings despite being fined for attending a birthday party thrown for him during the first lockdown.
Mr Johnson added: “My attendance at these moments, brief as it was, has not been found to be outside the rules.
“But clearly this was not the case for some of those gatherings after I had left and other gatherings when I was not even in the building.”
He was speaking after Sue Gray’s long-awaited report said Downing Street leadership must “bear responsibility” for the culture of partying during COVID lockdowns.
The prime minister told MPs he had been as “surprised and disappointed as anyone else in this House as the revelations” came to light, and that he was “appalled” by some of the behaviour in the report.
He said he took “full responsibility for everything that took place under my watch” and also denied he had lied to the Commons when he stated previously that no rules were broken.
The prime minister said he and the government were “humbled” and had “learned a lesson” – and that significant changes had been made to Number 10’s senior staff.
Former justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland pointed out “the rules of this House are clear – that anybody who comes here and deliberately lies and misleads the House should leave their position, resign or apologise”.
The senior Tory asked Mr Johnson if he had “deliberately lied to us” – but the PM denied he had as he “believed that what I was doing was to attend work events”.
“And with the exception of the event in the Cabinet Room, that is a view that has been vindicated by the investigation.”
PM doubles down on denial
During a news conference after the Commons debate, Mr Johnson doubled down on denying he was a liar, reiterated he was sorry for what happened and again said he thought the party he was fined for was a work event.
Asked by Sky News Political Editor Beth Rigby whether he ever considered resigning throughout the whole debacle, he insisted it was “my job to carry on and to deliver our manifesto commitments”.
“No matter how bitter and painful the conclusions of this may be, and they are, and no matter how humbling they are, I’ve got to keep moving forward,” he added.
As he was talking, the Labour whips office revealed it has been told to expect a Treasury statement tomorrow, widely expected to be the chancellor announcing a multibillion-pound financial package to help with the cost of living.
It will inevitably lead to accusations the government is trying to shift focus away from the Sue Gray report and generate some positive headlines.
Time for PM ‘to pack his bags’
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused Mr Johnson of showing “utter contempt” for the public and that the report demonstrated the “hubris and arrogance” of the government.
Mr Starmer said it was time for the PM “to pack his bags” and “restore dignity” to the office of the prime minister.
“They [the government] pretend the prime minister has somehow been exonerated, as if the fact he only broke the law once is worthy of praise,” said the Labour leader.
“The truth is they set the bar for his conduct lower than a snake’s belly.”
Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, said the conduct that went on in Number 10 during strict lockdowns fell “well short” of the standards expected by the public.
Her report looked at 16 events in 2020 and 2021 and found a large number of people had attended events and broken lockdown rules.
Senior staff attended or organised some of them, excessive alcohol consumption was reported, while some staff felt unable to raise concerns.
The report included a number of photos from the gatherings, including one showing the PM with a beer on his birthday, and at a leaving do for an adviser with wine bottles on the table.
At the time, Downing Street staff were among certain workers allowed to continue going into work.
The report’s release had been delayed until police finished their own investigation.
The Met Police’s inquiry saw 83 people receive at least one fixed-penalty notice for attending get-togethers over eight dates.