Boris Johnson is facing accusations of a “cover up” over his appointment of Chris Pincher after a former senior official said the Prime Minister was briefed “in person” about an investigation into his conduct.
Lord McDonald of Salford, the ex-permanent secretary at the UK Foreign Office, said the account given by Downing Street of how Mr Pincher came to be made deputy chief whip was “not true”.
After the retired mandarin took the highly unusual step of submitting a formal complaint to the parliamentary standards commissioner, Labour said it was clear the Prime Minister had “lied”.
Following Mr Pincher’s dramatic resignation last week over allegations he drunkenly groped two men at a private members’ club, No 10 has been accused of shifting its account of what Mr Johnson knew of his past conduct when he made him deputy chief whip in February.
In his letter, Lord McDonald said that in the summer of 2019, shortly after Mr Pincher was made Europe minister, a complaint by a group of officials about his conduct was investigated and upheld, and the Prime Minister informed of the outcome.
Downing Street initially claimed that Mr Johnson had not been aware of any “specific allegations” against Mr Pincher at the time of the February reshuffle.
But after reports over the weekend of repeated alleged instances of Mr Pincher making unwanted sexual advances to men, it said that while the Prime Minister had known of concerns, they had been either “resolved” or there had been no formal complaint and that any allegations were unsubstantiated.
However, Lord McDonald said this was still not accurate.
“Mr Johnson was briefed in person about the initiation and outcome of the investigation. There was a ‘formal complaint’,” he wrote.
“Allegations were ‘resolved’ only in the sense that the investigation was completed; Mr Pincher was not exonerated. To characterise the allegations as ‘unsubstantiated’ is therefore wrong.”
Speaking later on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Lord McDonald said that Mr Johnson had been told of the 2019 investigation at the time by a senior Cabinet Office official.
“I know that the senior official briefed the Prime Minister in person because that official told me so at the time,” he said.
Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, who was foreign secretary at the time, said he had asked Lord McDonald to investigate a complaint of “inappropriate conduct” in October 2019 but that the mandarin had concluded disciplinary action was not warranted.
“That doesn’t mean that inappropriate behaviour didn’t take place. We were clear that what happened was inappropriate, but we resolved it without going for a formal disciplinary process,” he told LBC radio.
“I spoke directly to Chris Pincher in no uncertain terms and I referred it to the Cabinet Office to seek that assurance.”
Mr Raab said that while he had informed the then chief whip, Mark Spencer, there had been no reason to tell Mr Johnson.
“I have discussed this with the Prime Minister over the last 24 hours, it is not my understanding that he was directly briefed,” he told the Today programme.
However Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said it was clear that Mr Johnson had gone ahead with Mr Pincher’s appointment, despite being aware of the seriousness of the complaints against him.
“Boris Johnson’s desperate attempts to cover up what he knew about sexual assault complaints against Chris Pincher before appointing him have been blown out the water,” she said in a statement.
“It is now clear that the Prime Minister knew about the seriousness of these complaints but decided to promote this man to a senior position in Government anyway. He refused to act and then lied about what he knew.
“Boris Johnson is dragging British democracy through the muck. His appalling judgment has made Westminster a less safe place to work.”
Senior Tory backbencher Sir Roger Gale, a long-standing critic of Mr Johnson, said Lord McDonald’s letter shows the Prime Minister lied.
He said he will now support a change of the rules of the Conservative 1922 Committee to allow a fresh vote of confidence in the Prime Minister to go ahead within 12 months of the previous one.
“Mr Johnson has for three days now been sending ministers – in one case a Cabinet minister – out to defend the indefensible, effectively to lie on his behalf. That cannot be allowed to continue,” he told the BBC.
“This Prime Minister has trashed the reputation of a proud and honourable party for honesty and decency and that is not acceptable.
“It is so blatant a lie it has to be acted upon as swiftly as possible by my party.”