Harriet Harman’s Partygate investigation team is accused of bullying ‘stressed’ No 10 witnesses
The inquiry into lockdown parties during Boris Johnson’s Downing Street reign was last night accused of ‘bullying’ officials who witnessed what happened.
Several civil servants have been given counselling for stress over the prospect of dealing with the Commons privileges committee which has been accused of being a ‘kangaroo court’ conducting a ‘witch hunt’ against the former Prime Minister.
One senior Government figure even raised fears that the pressure on aides could lead to ‘another David Kelly’ – a reference to the weapons expert who was found dead in 2003 after being identified as the source for a BBC report on the Iraq War.
The officials previously gave confidential evidence to Sue Gray’s investigation into Covid rule-breaking at No 10 – but fear talking to the committee of MPs led by former Labour Deputy Leader Harriet Harman, might compromise their anonymity.
They are being offered video counselling and access to a 24/7 helpline providing ‘immediate emotional support’ to try to deal with their fears that private information will leak into the public domain.
The committee is investigating whether Mr Johnson misled Parliament last December when he denied parties had taken place in No 10, in breach of Covid rules. But many senior Tories say the probe is redundant after Mr Johnson resigned in July.
The Mail on Sunday understands that the Commons Privileges Committee, chaired by Labour’s Harriet Harman (pictured in 2017), has angered civil servants by demanding the evidence they provided in confidence to Sue Gray’s investigation into Covid rule-breaking at No 10
Ms Harman’s committee has requested access to the evidence Ms Gray gathered from civil servants working in No 10 and the Cabinet Office, despite Ms Gray having promised her sources that their evidence would remain confidential. The row over officials’ evidence has contributed to delays to the inquiry, which had hoped to summon its first witnesses by the end of October, but will now struggle to do so before Christmas.
A senior Government source said: ‘This has caused such stress among officials that No 10 is paying for some of them to have counselling. It is basically bullying by the committee. Many of the officials would not have given evidence if they thought it would be used as part of a show trial, and they would certainly not cooperate with any future investigations on this basis.
‘One very senior Government figure has even warned about the risk of another David Kelly case.’
Another source said: ‘All the evidence was given in confidence by civil servants; now the committee of MPs want access to everything, and then, no doubt, will try to call them as public witnesses, put them on televised trial and humiliate them. This is because the committee has found nothing to suggest that Boris knowingly misled the Commons and are going to look completely stupid. So they are trying to reopen the Sue Gray inquiry to save public face.’
The privileges investigation was sparked after the Metropolitan Police investigated lockdown gatherings in Downing Street, which led to 126 fixed penalty notices and Mr Johnson being fined for attending what was deemed to be a birthday party in June 2020.
The PM at a Downing Street quiz night during the lockdown on December 15, 2020
Boris Johnson and staff pictured with wine in Downing Street garden in May 2020 when the UK was under Covid restrictions
Mr Johnson’s allies argue that the inquiry has hardened its terms of reference from assessing whether Mr Johnson intentionally misled the Commons to deciding whether he did so regardless of intent. Legal advice commissioned by the Cabinet Office from barrister Lord Pannick KC has said the investigation’s approach was ‘fundamentally flawed’, ‘wrong in principle’, and was set to be ‘unfair’ by not allowing Mr Johnson to have legal representation and allowing evidence from anonymous witnesses.
The inquiry will recommend any sanctions to the Commons. If it results in Mr Johnson being suspended for 10 days or more, that would automatically trigger a recall petition and possibly a by-election.
Sources on the inquiry say that it is ‘impossible’ for interviews to be carried out until it has received all the papers it has requested.
In her findings, senior civil servant Ms Gray condemned ‘a serious failure’ in the standards of leadership at No 10, and said that a string of gatherings were ‘difficult to justify’ while millions were unable to meet their friends and relatives.
A Tory source said: ‘Boris drove the likes of Harman completely mad by delivering Brexit and they will stop at nothing to get him.
‘They don’t care about the damage they are doing to bystanders who have nothing whatsoever to do with their supposed “investigation”. The fact that Harman is objecting to expert legal opinion being made public shows she knows this is a kangaroo court.’
The committee comprises Ms Harman, Labour MP Yvonne Fovargue, the SNP’s Allan Dorans and Tory MPs Andy Carter, Alberto Costa, Sir Bernard Jenkin and Sir Charles Walker.
A spokesman for the inquiry said: ‘The safety and wellbeing of witnesses is critically important to the committee… and it has been actively considering a range of proposals to achieve this. As with all responsible inquiries, there are rigorous processes in place to ensure that if wellbeing concerns are raised, individuals are given appropriate support.
‘The committee is focused only on the terms of reference set out by the Commons when it unanimously ordered this inquiry, which is what Boris Johnson knew about gatherings in No 10 and whether what he said to the House was misleading, and if so whether that amounted to a contempt. The committee is not looking at any wider issues.’