Boris Johnson has claimed Downing Street aides attending a string of boozy lockdown parties “genuinely believed that what they were doing was working”.
Sue Gray published her final report on Wednesday into the lockdown culture at Downing Street, detailing 15 gatherings, some of which went on into the early hours, and involved vomiting, an “altercation” and a karaoke machine.
The prime minister was asked at a press conference to explain why journalists were repeatedly told by No 10 spokespeople that no parties took place, despite the fact that several events described by Gray were held in the press office.
Johnson replied: “It’s my strong impression that they genuinely believed that what they were doing was working. I certainly don’t think that they set out to deceive you about that.”
At the press conference, Johnson also continued to insist that aside from the birthday party for which he was fined, he only attended gatherings in a work capacity, to recognise the achievements of staff who were leaving.
“I believe they were work events, they were part of my job; and that view appears to be substantiated by the fact I wasn’t fined for those events,” he said, adding, “I believe that recognising achievement and preserving morale are essential duties of leadership.”
Pressed on whether he had not realised such events were against his Covid guidance, Johnson said: “It didn’t occur to me that it was anything other than my duty as prime minister to do.”
The prime minister also said he had apologised to cleaners and other staff inside Downing Street, after Gray said she had been told about several examples of poor behaviour towards such staff.
For a second time, he dodged the question of whether he implied to Gray at a recent meeting that she should drop her report. Johnson, who declined to answer the question in the House of Commons earlier, simply pointed out that Gray’s terms of reference required a report to be published.
The prime minister sought to turn the page on the long-running Partygate saga, saying he would “work every hour” to tackle the cost of living crisis, “stand firm” against Vladimir Putin and level up the UK.
Gray’s report, which was published on Wednesday morning, detailed 15 social gatherings over eight dates during the pandemic, some of which continued until the early hours.
In what appeared to be an indictment of the prime minister, as well as senior civil servants, the report said: “The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture.”
Earlier, Johnson told the Commons he took “full responsibility for everything that took place on my watch”. He repeated his apology for the birthday gathering in June 2020, for which he received a fixed-penalty notice.
But the prime minister also continued to insist he believed other gatherings he attended were “work events”, and suggested this view had been “vindicated” by the fact he only received a single fine.