Wednesday, August 17

Tories accused of ‘defending the indefensible’ after latest Chris Pincher revelation – UK politics live | Politics


Tories defending the indefensible, says Rayner

Angela Rayner says Michael Ellis speaks of personal responsibility. But he needs to remind the PM of his personal responsbility for what has happened.

Was Lord McDonald telling the truth?

Why was nothing done about Chris Pincher at the time. A minister of state at the Foreign Office has a sensitive role in national security.

Why was this conduct not considered a breach of the ministerial code? Why did the prime minister allow him to stay in post?

Rayner says there is no accountablity in place. The PM does not have an ethics adviser in place. There is now an “even bigger ethical vacuum” in place in Downing Street.

What message does this send about the standards of this government?

When will this minister stop defending the indefensible and say enough is enough?

Angela Rayner says Michael Ellis speaks of personal responsibility. But he needs to remind the PM of his personal responsbility for what has happened.

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Was Lord McDonald telling the truth?

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Why was nothing done about Chris Pincher at the time. A minister of state at the Foreign Office has a sensitive role in national security.

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Why was this conduct not considered a breach of the ministerial code? Why did the prime minister allow him to stay in post?

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Rayner says there is no accountablity in place. The PM does not have an ethics adviser in place. There is now an “even bigger ethical vacuum” in place in Downing Street.

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What message does this send about the standards of this government?

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When will this minister stop defending the indefensible and say enough is enough?

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Angela Rayner, the Labour deputy leader, asks her question.

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Michael Ellis, the Cabinet Office minister, replies. He says the UK is fortunate to have mechanisms in place for upholding standards in public life.

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He says he is willing to explain them. But he wants to say something about victims first.

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He was a barrister for 17 years, he says. It is important that we do not prejudge any particular case, he says.

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Additional rules and guidance are in place to help ensure consistency, he says.

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Independent bodies are there to provide a broad oversight of standards.

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Those mechanisms exist as a result of the decisions of MPs, he says.

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He lists some of the bodies that maintain standards. And standards regimes are in place, he says.

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He says it is “incumbent on us not to prejudge these decisions”.

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The confidentiality of those who make complaints should be protected.

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But he says personal responsibility is also vital.

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In the Commons a Cabinet Office minister will be responding to an urgent question at 10.30am tabled by Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader. It is expected to be Michael Ellis, who by now has extensive experience defending Boris Johnson’s ethics record in the Commons. Rayner has asked for a statement “on the mechanisms for upholding standards in public life”, but in practice this is certain to focus on the Chris Pincher scandal.

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“Hello, is that President Zelenskiy’s office? It’s Downing Street here. Prime Minister Johnson was wondering if the president is free to take a call?”

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This seems to be a regular occurrencee in Kyiv and, amazingly, such calls often seem to coincide with days when Boris Johnson is facing some sort of domestic turmoil in London. No 10 has denied that Johnson reaches for the hotline to Ukraine as a distraction technique but, as the i’s Jane Merrick reported recently, the evidence to the contrary is compelling.

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And, lo and behold, guess who Boris Johnson has been calling this morning. This is from Volodymr Zelenskiy.

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The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, has granted a Commons urgent question on standards in public life. It will happen at 12.30pm. Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, tabled the UQ.

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Michael Ellis, the Cabinet Office minister, is likely to respond on behalf of the government.

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Dominic Raab also had a gruesome time being interviewed on ITV’s Good Morning Britain by Susanna Reid. She was not impressed by his argument that, although the complaint about Chris Pincher’s inappropriate behaviour as a Foreign Office minister was upheld, that did not mean he was “guilty”.

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This is from the FT’s Robert Shrimsley.

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Dominic Raab, the justice secretary and deputy prime minister, was having to answer questions on Pinchergate on the media this morning and, like Thérèse Coffey (see 10.12am), he discovered the drawbacks of going into an interview armed just with a No 10 briefing. Here are the key points.

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  • Raab claimed that Boris Johnson had not been “directly briefed” about the complaints about Chris Pincher’s conduct that were made when Pincher was a Foreign Office minister in 2019. He made this point on BBC News (see below) and in a subsequent interview on the Today programme, where he said:
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In relation to what happened in 2019, I’m not aware that the prime minister was briefed directly about it.

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I have discussed this with the prime minister over the last 24 hours, it is not my understanding that he was directly briefed.

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In relation to the 2019 allegation or complaint, whilst there was inappropriate behaviour, it didn’t trip the wire into disciplinary action.

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But only a few minutes later Simon McDonald was on the Today programme himself, and he said that he knew for a fact that Johnson had been briefed. (See 10am.) McDonald said he was not surprised that Raab did not know that Johnson had been briefed on the matter “because there are compartments in government, these things are very sensitive”.

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But, even though Raab may not have known at the time about Johnson being briefed, it is surprising that Johnson did not mention it himself when the two men spoke about the scandal within the last 24 hours.

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  • Raab claimed that it was McDonald who decided “independently from me” that Pincher should not be subject to disciplinary action in 2019. He told LBC:
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There was a review, an investigation if you like … to decide whether a formal disciplinary action or an investigation and process was warranted.

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The review, conducted under the auspices of Sir Simon – now Lord – McDonald was that disciplinary action was not warranted.

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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.

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  • Raab said he told Pincher “in no uncertain terms” that his conduct was unacceptable.
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Here are some more lines from Simon McDonald’s interview with the Today programme this morning.

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  • McDonald said he knew that Boris Johnson had been told at the time about the complaint about Chris Pincher’s conduct in 2019 as a Foreign Office minister. He said:
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I briefed the relevant senior official in the Cabinet Office. You will understand that such complaints about ministers are very rare, very sensitive, they are dealt with at the very top level. And so I had the help and support of the Cabinet Office through the investigation.

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I know that the senior official briefed the prime minister in person because that official told me so at the time.

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  • He said that he decided to speak out because he knew what No 10 was saying was wrong. He explained:
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It is very unusual for a retired official to do what I have done this morning. I did it by myself, because what I have seen and read over the last few days I knew to be wrong. And you know, things get to a point where you have to do the right thing.

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First of all, No 10 have had five full days to get the story correct and that has still not happened.

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And second, I do not approve of anonymous briefings behind the scenes. If I was to do this, I should put my name to it rather than just phone a journalist and tip them off.

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In the interview McDonald certainly sounded like a reluctant whistleblower. Even though McDonald was one of several permanent secretaries after Johnson came to power amid reports that they were out of favour with the new regime, top civil servants learn discretion as their default mode, and denouncing their political bosses – or former bosses – does not come easily. McDonald sounded quite reticent, and he chose his words carefully.

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  • McDonald said that he did not think it was right to say that the allegations about Pincher’s conduct at the Foreign Office had been “resolved”. He explained:
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I dispute the use of the word resolved. For me resolved is too positive a word. It sounds as though a happy and agreed conclusion was reached. No, the complaint was upheld. So to leave the impression that in some way Mr Pincher was exonerated is wrong.

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Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, says that in the light of Simon McDonald’s letter it is now obvious that Boris Johnson “refused to act and then lied about what he knew”. In a statement she says:

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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.

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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.

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Boris Johnson is dragging British democracy through the muck. His appalling judgement has made Westminster a less safe place to work.

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Good morning. One of the oldest cliches about political scandals is that it is not the original fault that brings you down, but the cover-up, and as Boris Johnson’s administration continues its Tory sleaze re-enactment pageant, it has provided the perfect illustration.

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Last week Chris Pincher resigned as deputy chief whip after reportedly drunkenly groping two men at the Carlton Club. At Westminster many people had heard rumours that Pincher may have done similar things before, and the incident immediately prompted questions as to why Boris Johnson appointed Pincher deputy chief whip in the February reshuffle in the first place.

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No 10’s initial response last Friday was to say that Johnson was not aware of any allegations about Pincher’s conduct when he appointed him to the post (which gave him considerable power over Tory MPs, as well as a pastoral duty to support them). Over the last four days that line has now collapsed, to the point where any reasonable observer must conclude that Downing Street has been lying. My colleague Archie Bland has a comprehensive account of how the No 10 story unravelled in his First Edition briefing.

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This morning Simon McDonald, a former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, has released a copy of the letter he has sent to the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone, providing yet more evidence that No 10 has not been telling the truth. McDonald says in the summer of 2019, soon after Johnson promoted Pincher from the backbenches and made him a minister of state at the Foreign Office, officials complained about Pincher’s groping-type behaviour. (McDonald does not give details, but he says the allegations were similar to the Carlton Club ones.) The complaint was upheld and Pincher apologised, McDonald says. And when Pincher left the Foreign Office, staff did not bother with a leaving do.

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Crucially, McDonald says Johnson was told about this at the time. McDonald says this shows what No 10 has been saying about what Johnson knew about Pincher – even the modified line being used yesterday – is untrue. McDonald writes:

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n

The original No 10 line is not true and the modification is still not accurate. 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 characterise the allegations as “unsubstantiated” is therefore wrong.

n

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McDonald does not use the word “lying” in his letter, and he did not use it in his subsequent interview on the Today programme. But, when asked what No 10 needed to do now, “stop lying” was effectively what he said. He told the programme:

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n

I think they need to come clean. I think that the language is ambiguous, the sort of telling the truth and crossing your fingers at the same time and hoping that people are not too forensic in their subsequent questioning and I think that is not working.

n

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In response Daisy Cooper, the Lib Dem deputy leader, has said Johnson needs to “own up to his web of lies”. She said:

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n

Lord McDonald has shone a new light on this murky cover-up. Boris Johnson needs to own up to his web of lies and finally come clean today. Every day this carries on our politics gets dragged further through the mud.

n

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Here is the agenda for the day.

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9.30am: Boris Johnson chairs cabinet.

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11.30am: Downing Street holds a lobby briefing.

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I try to monitor the comments below the line (BTL) but it is impossible to read them all. If you have a direct question, do include “Andrew” in it somewhere and I’m more likely to find it. I do try to answer questions, and if they are of general interest, I will post the question and reply above the line (ATL), although I can’t promise to do this for everyone.

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If you want to attract my attention quickly, it is probably better to use Twitter. I’m on @AndrewSparrow.

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Alternatively, you can email me at [email protected]

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