LONDON (AP) — The latest scandal to hit British Prime Minister Boris Johnson deepened Tuesday when a former senior civil servant said publicly that Johnson’s office was not 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 lawmaker Chris Pincher’s previous allegations of misconduct since Thursday, when Pincher resigned as deputy chief amid complaints that he groped two men at a private club.
The government’s explanation has changed repeatedly over the past five days, with ministers initially saying Johnson was unaware of the earlier allegations of sexual misconduct in February when he promoted Pincher to the post of deputy chief. By Monday, a spokesman said Johnson was aware of the allegations that “were either resolved or did not progress to a formal complaint.”
That didn’t sit well with Simon McDonald, the most senior official at the Foreign Office from 2015 to 2020. In a highly unusual move, he said on Tuesday that the prime minister’s office was still not telling the truth.
In a letter to the parliamentary standards commissioner, McDonald said he received complaints about Pincher’s behavior in the summer of 2019, shortly after Pincher became a minister in the Foreign Office. An investigation confirmed the allegation, and Pincher apologized for his actions, McDonald said.
McDonald also disputed suggestions that Johnson was unaware of the allegations or that they might be dismissed because they were or were not formally resolved.
“The original line No. 10 is not true and the modification is not yet accurate,” McDonald wrote. “Mr. Johnson was briefed in person on the initiation and outcome of the investigation.
“There was a ‘formal complaint.’ The allegations were ‘settled’ only in the sense that the investigation was completed; Mr. Pincher was not exonerated. Therefore, characterizing the allegations as ‘baseless’ is incorrect.”
Asked about the letter, Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said he did not know if Johnson had been briefed on the Foreign Office investigation. Raab was foreign secretary at the time and worked with McDonald on the investigation.
“That’s news to me,” Raab told the BBC when asked about McDonald’s claim that Johnson was told about the investigation. “I wasn’t aware of that, and it’s not clear to me that that’s really accurate.”
The latest revelations are fueling discontent within Johnson’s cabinet after ministers were forced to go public with the prime minister’s denials, only for the explanation to change the next day.
The London Times published an analysis of the situation on Tuesday under the headline “Claim of lying endangers Boris Johnson”.
The scandal comes a month after Johnson survived a no-confidence vote 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 accusations about lockdown parties in government offices that ultimately resulted in 126 fines, including one levied on Johnson.
Two weeks later, the Conservative candidates were soundly defeated in two by-elections to fill the vacant seats in Parliament, increasing discontent with Johnson’s leadership.
Pincher resigned on Thursday as chief deputy chief, a key post in enforcing party discipline, telling the prime minister he “drank too much” the night before and had “embarrassed me and other people.”
Johnson initially refused to take the extra step of suspending Pincher from the Conservative Party, but relented after a formal complaint about the groping allegations was lodged with parliamentary authorities.
Critics suggest that Johnson was slow to react to the scandal because he did not want to risk forcing Pincher to resign, setting up another possible special election defeat for the Conservatives.
Even before the Pincher scandal, suggestions arose that Johnson could soon face another no-confidence vote.
In the coming weeks, Conservative lawmakers will elect new members to the committee that sets the party’s parliamentary rules. Several candidates have suggested they would support changing the rules to allow another no-confidence vote, which is banned for 12 months under existing rules.
Leading Conservative lawmaker Roger Gale, a longtime critic of Johnson, said he will now support a change to the Conservative Committee’s 1922 rules to allow voting.
“Mr. Johnson has been sending ministers for three days, in one case a cabinet minister, to defend the indefensible, effectively to lie on his behalf. That cannot be allowed to continue,” he told the BBC. “This prime minister it has destroyed the reputation of a proud and honorable party for its honesty and decency, and that is not acceptable.
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