LONDON (AP) — The latest scandal to hit British Prime Minister Boris Johnson deepened Tuesday as a former top civil servant publicly said Johnson’s office wasn’t telling the truth about how he handled allegations of misconduct against a senior member of his government.
Johnson has been under pressure to explain what he knew about previous allegations of misconduct by lawmaker Chris Pincher since Thursday, when Pincher resigned as deputy chief whip amid complaints that he groped two men at a private club.
The government’s explanation has shifted repeatedly over the past five days, with ministers initially saying Johnson wasn’t aware of earlier allegations of sexual misconduct in February, when he promoted Pincher to the post of deputy chief whip. By Monday, a spokesman said Johnson knew of allegations that were “either resolved or did not progress to a formal complaint.”
That did not sit well with Simon McDonald, the most senior civil servant at the Foreign Office from 2015 to 2020. In a highly unusual move, he said Tuesday that the prime minister’s office still wasn’t telling the truth.
In a letter to the parliamentary commissioner for standards, McDonald said he received complaints about Pincher’s behavior in the summer of 2019, shortly after Pincher became a Foreign Office minister. An investigation upheld the complaint and Pincher apologized for his actions, McDonald said.
McDonald also disputed suggestions that Johnson was either unaware of the allegations or that they could be dismissed because they were either resolved or had not been made formally.
“The original No. 10 line is not true and the modification is still not accurate,” McDonald wrote. “Mr. Johnson was briefed in person about the initiation and outcome of the investigation.
“There was a ‘formal complaint.’ Allegations were ‘resolved’ only in the sense that the investigation was completed; Mr. Pincher was not exonerated. To characterize the allegations as ‘unsubstantiated’ is therefore wrong.”
When asked about the letter, Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said he didn’t know whether Johnson had been told about the Foreign Office investigation. Raab was foreign secretary at the time and worked with McDonald on the inquiry.
“That’s news to me,” Raab told the BBC when asked about McDonald’s assertion that Johnson was told about the investigation. “I wasn’t aware of that, and it’s not clear to me that that is factually accurate.”
The latest revelations are fueling discontent within Johnson’s Cabinet after ministers were forced to publicly deliver the prime minister’s denials, only to have the explanation shift the next day.
The Times of London on Tuesday published an analysis of the situation under the headline “Claim of lying puts Boris Johnson in peril.”
The scandal comes a month after Johnson survived a vote of no confidence in which more than 40% of Conservative Party lawmakers voted to remove him from office. Concerns about Johnson’s leadership were fueled by the prime minister’s shifting responses to months of allegations about lockdown-breaking parties in government offices that ultimately resulted in 126 fines, including one levied against Johnson.
Two weeks later, Conservative candidates were badly beaten in two by-elections to fill vacant seats in Parliament, adding to discontent with Johnson’s leadership.
Pincher resigned as deputy chief whip, a key position in enforcing party discipline, on Thursday, telling the prime minister that he “drank far too much” the previous night and had “embarrassed myself and other people.”
Johnson initially refused to take the further step of suspending Pincher from the Conservative Party, but he relented after a formal complaint about the groping allegations was filed with parliamentary authorities.
Critics suggest Johnson was slow to react to the scandal because he didn’t want to risk forcing Pincher to resign, setting up another potential special election defeat for the Conservatives.
Even before the Pincher scandal, suggestions were swirling that Johnson may soon face another vote of no confidence.
In the next few weeks, Conservative lawmakers will elect new members to the committee that sets parliamentary rules for the party. Several candidates have suggested they would support changing the rules to allow for another vote of no confidence, which is barred for 12 months under the existing rules.
Senior Conservative lawmaker Roger Gale, a long-standing critic of Johnson, said he will now support a change of the rules of the Conservative 1922 Committee to allow the vote.
“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 honorable party for honesty and decency, and that is not acceptable.
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