Partygate: The latest battleground in the toxic ‘Vote Leave’ war
As Boris Johnson takes an oath on the Bible at 2 pm this afternoon, saddling up for a four-hour grilling by the privileges committee, the testimony of a familiar foe will loom large over affairs.
That foe is Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former “disruptor-in-chief” and the unscrupulous Machiavelli who masterminded the former prime minister’s path to power. Having departed No 10 on acrimonious terms in late 2020, he has now returned to the spotlight with some stunning “partygate” reprieves.
It has recommenced the war of words between Johnson and his onetime Vote Leave ally, as the former PM prepares his innocence plea for the privileges committee later today.
Earlier this week, Cummings claimed that he, along with Lee Cain (the then-Downing Street director of communications) had in fact warned Johnson that the infamous “bring your own booze” garden party in May 2020 would be against the rules.
If taken seriously, it is an intervention that would dismantle Johnson’s chosen defence that he was not advised such gatherings broke Covid guidelines.
Predictably, the former prime minister was not having any of it.
In a 52-page dossier outlining his defence on Tuesday, Johnson referenced the Brexit guru and his infamous blog a total of ten times. In one acid aside, he declared that his onetime confidante “cannot be treated as a credible witness” as he “bears an animus towards me”
“He did not mention the [BYOB] event, let alone express any concerns” that it would be a breach of the rules, Johnson retorted. Rather, as PM he understood the gathering to be a “socially-distanced outdoor meeting to boost staff morale and team-working after what had been a very difficult period”.
Pointing to the committee’s burden of proof, Johnson continues: “there is no evidence he was told that any gatherings broke Covid rules other than what Dominic Cummings now says”.
Cummings replied to Johnson’s 52-page dossier with a write-up of his own on his aforementioned blog. Using his Substack soapbox, he declared: “I’m in the middle of writing my own statement to the official inquiry”, adding that he’s looking forward to how “the Trolley tries to lie his way to safety” at the hearing.
Cummings finished: “I’ll watch and post thoughts on how he tries to lie his way to safety”, assuring his readership that Johnson’s claims were “obviously false”. Ouch.
But the vituperations from former Vote Leave colleagues did not end there.
The 110-page evidence dossier published by the privileges committee this morning reveals that the divisions in crumbled Vote Leave empire run even deeper than Johnson and Cummings’ mutual reproofs.
Lee Cain, a former Vote Leave doyenne who later served alongside Cummings as Johnson’s director of communications, has now issued his own partygate reprimand. In the new tranche of evidence, Cain says it was “clear” that the infamous “bring your own booze” garden party in May 2020 was “purely a social function”.
Cain’s newly-released written statement details how he initially raised doubts about the event, relaying his concerns to Cummings. The No 10 chief-of-staff then “agreed it should not take place and said he would raise the issue with … the prime minister”.
Cain’s remarks pour further doubt on Johnson’s position that he had not been advised that such gatherings broke rules.
The statement continues: “I do not recall if I personally had a conversation with the PM about the garden party but it would have been highly unusual for me not to have raised a potentially serious communications risk with the PM directly — especially having raised it with his PPS and the matter remaining unresolved”.
Both Cummings and Cain departed Downing Street in late 2020, making way for one of several No 10 rejigs under Johnson. The departure was the culmination of a bitter power struggle inside Johnson’s top team, with rival factions — split between Cummings and the PM’s then-fiancée — battling for supremacy even as the pandemic death toll topped 50,000 and the economy threatened to implode.
The “Vote Leave” war of words has been rumbling on in the background ever since, despite a brief armistice preceded by Johnson’s fall from power. However with the former PM back in the spotlight, so too is his archest Brexit-borne bête noire.
Johnson may just rue the day he ever emerged on the wrong side of supposed schemer-supreme Cummings and Lee Cain, his trusty comms sidekick.