How Boris Johnson forgot — then remembered — misconduct claims against a top ally

EuroActiv Politico News

LONDON — Boris Johnson has apparently been suffering from amnesia.

Questions have been swirling in Westminster this week about what exactly the U.K. prime minister knew about Chris Pincher, who resigned from a key government job last week amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

Downing Street was on Tuesday forced (after days of tip-offs, and an explosive on-the-record accusation from a former top civil servant) to admit that Johnson had indeed been told in 2019 that Pincher — who the prime minister went on to promote to deputy chip whip, in which he ironically enforced party discipline — was under investigation for separate allegations.

The handling of this latest chapter of Westminster scandal increases pressure on Johnson, whose leadership has been weakened following the so-called Partygate scandal and only narrowly survived a vote of confidence in his leadership by Tory MPs last month.

POLITICO takes you through the long road to this admission, which has already dealt a blow to the reputations of many officials and ministers sent out to defend Johnson on television and in the press:

July 2016: Chris Pincher, MP for Tamworth, gets his first government role in the whip’s office — tasked with overseeing government discipline — after Theresa May becomes prime minister.

November 2017: Pincher resigns from the role after the former professional rower and Tory activist Alex Story accuses him of making unwanted passes. Pincher denies the allegations and a party investigation later clears him of wrongdoing. 

Chris Pincher got his first government role in the whip’s office in July 2016 | UK Parliament

January 2018: Theresa May brings Pincher back into government as deputy chief whip in her minority government.

July 25, 2019: Pincher is promoted to minister of state in the Foreign Office after Boris Johnson becomes prime minister. 

Summer of 2019: Officials complain to chief diplomat Simon McDonald about Pincher’s behavior. The allegations are described by McDonald as “similar” to allegations of his conduct at the Carlton Club last week. An investigation upholds the officials’ complaint. Pincher apologizes and promises not to repeat the behavior, according to McDonald’s account.

Late in 2019: Johnson is made aware of the complaint upheld against Pincher by Foreign Office officials following the investigation. No. 10 now characterizes this as the prime minister being briefed rather than being asked to take action, as the issue had been resolved. 

February 2020: Pincher is moved to the communities department.

February 9, 2022: After playing a key role in so-called “Operation Save Big Dog” — an effort by allies of the prime minister to shore up support in the wake of a leadership threat — Pincher is returned to the key parliamentary enforcer post of deputy chief whip.  

In the hours after he was appointed, an allegation was looked into by the Cabinet Office’s Propriety and Ethics Team. No. 10 says that a different concern to the Foreign Office complaint was raised and looked into, but was not taken forward and so it was not deemed appropriate to prevent Pincher taking on that role. 

June 30: Pincher resigns saying he “embarrassed himself” after drinking far too much. An anonymous Downing Street source tells the BBC he will face no further action from the party and will keep the whip — meaning he can remain a Conservative MP. Three sources tell POLITICO the PM was made aware of allegations against Pincher during the reshuffle in which he was elevated to deputy chief whip.

July 1: At the regular Friday briefing of Westminster journalists, the prime minister’s deputy official spokesperson insists that the prime minister was not aware of any allegations against Pincher at the time of promoting him in February. Later in the briefing, he corrects himself to say Johnson was not aware of any “specific” allegations against Pincher.

Later on July 1: Pincher has the whip suspended while the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, the mechanism for looking at official complaints, investigates allegations of groping.

July 2: Pincher says he is seeking professional medical help.

July 3: Asked on the Sunday political TV shows about what the prime minister knew, Work and Pensions Secretary Thérèse Coffey tells Sky News: “I’m not aware that he was made aware about specific claims about any particular incident. I don’t believe he was aware.”

July 4: Just after 7 a.m.: Will Quince, a junior minister, tells Sky News: “I anticipated this question, I spoke to No. 10, both yesterday and this morning, and I asked firmly and clearly for an explanation as to what had happened. And I have been given a categorical assurance that the prime minister was not aware of any specific allegation or complaint made against the former deputy chief whip.”

Former chief diplomat Simon McDonald published a letter alleging Boris Johnson was briefed about the 2019 investigation | Will Oliver/EPA-EFE

11:30 a.m.: At the regular on-the-record Downing Street briefing, the prime minister’s official spokesman shifts the official line, telling reporters the prime minister was aware of “some allegations” that were “either resolved or did not progress.” But he said: “At the time of the appointment the prime minister was not aware of any specific allegations being looked at.”

10 p.m.: The BBC reports the PM was made aware of the 2019 complaint while Pincher was working at the Foreign Office.

July 5: 7 a.m. Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, on a media round, confirms Pincher was investigated over alleged inappropriate behavior while he was a minister at the Foreign Office, but says this did not result in disciplinary action. Raab was foreign secretary at the time of the investigation. 

7:30 a.m. Former chief diplomat Simon McDonald publishes a letter alleging Johnson was in fact briefed about the 2019 investigation, and warning No. 10 Downing Street it needs to “come clean.”

12 noon: Journalists are told by the prime minister’s spokesman that he had subsequently found out Johnson was told about the foreign office investigation. Simultaneously in the House of Commons, Paymaster General Michael Ellis tells MPs the PM had been told, but “did not immediately recall the conversation.”