LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – Boris Johnson was told of a complaint against Conservative MP Chris Pincher two years before promoting him, a minister said, in a major concession from the government after days of speculation about what the UK prime minister knew and when.
An internal probe into Pincher’s conduct when he was a Foreign Office minister in October 2019 found he had “caused a high level of discomfort,” to an unnamed staff member, but “meant no harm,” Cabinet Office Minister Michael Ellis told the House of Commons on Tuesday (july 5).
Pincher apologised and Johnson was made aware in late 2019, he said.
“Last week, when fresh allegations arose, the prime minister did not immediately recall the conversation in late 2019 about this incident,” Ellis said.
“As soon as he was reminded, the No 10 press office corrected their public lines.”
The revelation raises questions about Johnson’s judgment in promoting Pincher to become deputy chief whip – a political enforcer – earlier this year.
It also adds to pressure on the prime minister from critics in his own Conservative Party just over a month after he narrowly survived a confidence vote of his own Tory MPs.
Pincher resigned last week as one of Johnson’s political enforcers in the wake of Sun newspaper allegations he groped two fellow guests at a private club. He had quit a similar role in 2017 amid allegations he had made unwanted advances on a former Olympic rower.
While Pincher has denied allegations of specific incidents, he said in his resignation letter last week that he’d “embarrassed” himself and “caused upset” to others.
He and his office have not replied to repeated requests for comment made by Bloomberg since the latest allegations erupted last week.
Ellis was responding to an urgent question raised in the Commons by Deputy Labour Party Leader Angela Rayner, who slammed the “ethical vacuum” in Downing Street.
But the anger of MPs in the ruling Conservative party at the government’s handling of the Pincher allegations was also palpable.
“How does it help if our own political leaders in all political parties finish up promoting people with the wrong attitudes and the wrong behaviours?” veteran Tory MP Bernard Jenkin asked.
“Isn’t that exactly what gives permission for the wrong attitudes and the wrong behaviours to persist?”
Another Tory, William Wragg, said the government “is widely regarded as having lost its sense of direction,” while a third, Jackie Doyle-Price said the “whiff” of rumours and historic incidents should have been enough to tell Johnson that promoting Pincher “wasn’t wise.”
She called for a “reset of standards” and a “complete reboot of the ministerial code.”
The Tory sleaze saga rumbled into a sixth day when Simon McDonald, who was the chief civil servant at the Foreign Office between 2015 and 2020, said in a letter he posted on Twitter that a complaint had been upheld against Pincher in 2019 and that Johnson was “briefed in person” about the probe.
“He cannot be allowed to use the confidentiality of the process three years ago to pursue his predatory behaviour in other contexts,” McDonald wrote of Pincher.
McDonald’s letter and Ellis’ revelations call into question Downing Street’s defence last week of what the premier knew about Pincher’s conduct when he promoted him in February.
On Friday, Johnson’s spokesman Jamie Davies said Johnson had been unaware of “specific allegations” at the time of his appointment.
The line shifted on Monday, when spokesman Max Blain told reporters that the premier was aware of allegations that had either been resolved or not ended in a formal complaint.
Because there had been no formal complaint, it was “not appropriate to stop the appointment,” Blain said, referring to Johnson’s decision.
‘Enough is enough’
McDonald’s letter on Tuesday questioned this account, saying the No. 10 position is “not true and the modification is still not accurate.”
“Allegations were ‘resolved’ only in the sense that the investigation was completed; Mr Pincher was not exonerated,” he wrote.
Blain on Tuesday told reporters that “on Friday, it was our belief that he was not informed about that specific incident.”
It took “some time” to establish Johnson had been briefed on the matter,” he said.
Doyle-Price criticised what she described as the “half a dozen different variations of degrees of honesty of which the knowledge of these events have been addressed by Number 10.”
Another Tory MP, John Penrose, asked Ellis at what point he and his colleagues in government “will stand up and say enough is enough.”