With the Downing Street Christmas party and flat redecoration controversies reaching crisis level this week, Boris Johnson has once again found himself explicitly accused of lying. Here we look at some of the most egregious examples of the prime minister’s alleged dishonesty.
Last week, reports emerged of a Christmas party held in Downing Street on 18 December 2020, at a time when the country was subject to strict Covid measures. Johnson’s official spokesperson denied that any party had taken place, and the prime minister told the House of Commons that “all guidance was followed completely in No 10”.
But after a video of his former press secretary, Allegra Stratton, laughing and joking with colleagues about a non-socially distanced wine and cheese party, the prime minister changed tack. He told the Commons he had been “repeatedly assured” there was no party but had now asked the Cabinet secretary, Simon Case, to establish “all the facts”.
The ministerial standards adviser, Lord Geidt, said in a report that Johnson had told him he knew nothing about who made payments towards the renovation of his Downing Street flat until immediately before media reports in February 2021.
But in a separate report published on Thursday, the Electoral Commission said it had seen evidence that Johnson had sent Lord Brownlow, a peer and party donor, a WhatsApp message in November 2020 “asking him to authorise further, at that stage unspecified, refurbishment works on the residence”, to which he agreed. The watchdog fined the Conservative party over the donation.
Downing Street now claims there was no inconsistency between the Geidt and Electoral Commission reports, as Johnson knew only that Brownlow was organising donations to pay for the refurbishment works, not that Brownlow was himself “the underlying donor”.
One of the most enduring lies Johnson put to his name was the claim on the side of the Vote Leave campaign bus that “we send the European Union £350m a week” and the money could be used to “fund our NHS instead”.
After journalists, campaigners and economists challenged the claim, the official statistics watchdog put the final nail in the coffin of the now infamous propaganda.
In 2016, the UK Statistics Authority said it was “disappointed to note that there continue to be suggestions that the UK contributes £350m to the EU each week, and that this full amount could be spent elsewhere”, the UK’s contribution to the EU is paid after the application of the rebate and this was a “misleading” gross figure. In 2018, Johnson was still standing by the claim; in fact, stating that the claim was “too low”.
Misleading the Queen
In 2019, Johnson was accused of lying to the Queen over the advice he gave her on suspending parliament for five weeks. The power to suspend, or prorogue, parliament lies with the Queen, who conventionally acts on the advice of the prime minister.
The supreme court ultimately ruled the prorogation unlawful – and Johnson was faced with accusations of lying to the Queen. Asked whether he had lied to the monarch about his reasons for the suspension, he replied: “Absolutely not.”
The prime minister was condemned for publishing an article in 2004 as editor of the Spectator in which he blamed Liverpool fans for the 1989 Hillsborough disaster.
While the article says the event was “undeniably” a tragedy, it adds: “That is no excuse for Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon.”
The Hillsborough inquest jury later concluded: “The jury found nothing to suggest that the behaviour of fans, drunken or otherwise, contributed to the disaster.” In 2012, Johnson apologised and added that he “bitterly regretted” the comments.
In 2004 Johnson was fired by the then Tory leader, Michael Howard, from positions as shadow arts minister and party vice-chairman for lying about his extramarital affair with the Spectator columnist Petronella Wyatt.
When it transpired that tabloid reports, which Johnson had dismissed as an “inverted pyramid of piffle”, were true, he refused to resign. Once the allegations were confirmed by Wyatt’s mother and Johnson was sacked, he refused to go into any further details of his private life, but added: “It’s difficult and much of what I have heard is very peculiar.”
In the late 1980s, Johnson was sacked by the Times newspaper over a front-page article about the discovery of Edward II’s Rose Palace, in which Johnson allegedly invented a quote from his godfather, the historian Sir Colin Lucas.
He later said: “The trouble was that somewhere in my copy I managed to attribute to Colin the view that Edward II and Piers Gaveston would have been cavorting together in the Rose Palace.” It turned out that Gaveston had actually been killed 13 years before the palace had been built.
A pledge to build 40 hospitals by 2030 was repeated many times by Johnson during the 2019 election campaign. Ministers have since set out more details, revealing that the bulk of the projects involve rebuilding or consolidation, and that only four have been started. The scheme comes with a promised spending package of £3.7bn. However, NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, said the real cost of building 40 new hospitals would be more like £20bn.