Evidence strongly suggests it would have been “obvious” to Boris Johnson that COVID rules were being breached at Downing Street gatherings he attended, a committee of MPs examining the issue has said.
MPs on the cross-party Commons Privileges Committee were tasked with investigating whether Mr Johnson misled parliament over partygate allegations after Sir Keir Starmer tabled a motion in April 2022.
The former prime minister repeatedly denied COVID lockdown rules were broken at Number 10 when asked in the Commons.
Boris Johnson hits out after latest partygate inquiry update – live politics updates
On Friday, the committee published its initial 24-page report, including four previously unseen photos of Downing Street gatherings awash with bottles of alcohol, saying the Commons may have been misled multiple times.
It said Mr Johnson has been called to give oral evidence in parliament in the week beginning 20 March. The committee also revealed what it will ask Mr Johnson.
The report said: “The evidence strongly suggests that breaches of guidance would have been obvious to Mr Johnson at the time he was at the gatherings.
“There is evidence that those who were advising Mr Johnson about what to say to the press and in the House were themselves struggling to contend that some gatherings were within the rules.”
The committee said it will consider why Mr Johnson told MPs no guidance had been broken “when he knew what the guidance was and was in attendance at gatherings where the guidance was breached”.
It will also look into “why he failed to tell the House about the gatherings at which he had been present”.
The committee emphasised the report is not the final assessment, but published lots of evidence submitted to the inquiry.
Mr Johnson claimed the interim report showed he was being “vindicated” and it is “clear from this report that I have not committed any contempt of parliament”.
“That is because there is no evidence in the report that I knowingly or recklessly misled parliament, or that I failed to update parliament in a timely manner,” he added.
“Nor is there any evidence in the report that I was aware that any events taking place in No 10 or the Cabinet Office were in breach of the rules or the guidance.”
Mr Johnson told the Commons multiple times he did not break lockdown rules, including in December 2021 when asked whether there was a party in Downing Street on 13 November 2020, to which he replied: “No.
“But I’m sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.”
Sir Keir Starmer also asked him about the parties, with Mr Johnson telling the Commons: “All guidance was followed completely in Number 10.”
Read more: Everything you need to know about the investigation into Boris Johnson
At the end of January this year, the committee contacted those involved in the parties, or with direct knowledge of them, to submit written evidence by 7 February.
This had been delayed from last July, with the Cabinet Office blamed for resisting the request for key information at the time.
In the latest report, the Privileges Committee said its inquiry was “initially held up by a reluctance on the part of the government to provide unredacted evidence”, including heavily redacted documents – some of which were already available publicly – that rendered them “devoid of any evidential value”.
Rishi Sunak’s government finally provided the relevant material – unredacted – on 18 November last year.
Some of the evidence has been published in the interim report, including a WhatsApp message from April 2021 from a No 10 official that said: “[No 10 official]’s worried about leaks of PM having a p*** up and to be fair I don’t think it’s unwarranted.”
In response to a party held in No 10 in November 2021, No 10’s director of communications Jack Doyle wrote in a WhatsApp: “Can you pull together our best possible defence on this one I don’t know what we say about the flat.”
A No 10 official then replied: “Don’t we just do a generic line and not get into whether there was a drinks thing or not. ‘COVID rules have been followed at all times’ or something.”
The communications director then answered: “I think we have to say something as robust as we can manage but see what you think.”