Boris Johnson’s claim that he was not aware of prior specific allegations against Chris Pincher is falling apart, after a former top civil servant wrote a formal letter to allege that Downing Street’s version of events was untrue.
In a highly unusual move, Simon McDonald, who had been the most senior official in the Foreign Office and is now a crossbench peer, told the parliamentary standards commissioner that the prime minister was briefed in person about a 2019 complaint of alleged groping by the former Conservative deputy chief whip.
Speaking later to the BBC, McDonald said Downing Street needed to “come clean”, and that some ministers’ statements on Pincher had been wrong.
Dominic Raab, who was foreign secretary at the time, confirmed to the BBC that he had launched an investigation into claims about Pincher, then a junior foreign office minister, who resigned as deputy chief whip after being accused of drunkenly groping two men.
However, Raab said he did not know if Johnson had been briefed about the inquiry, as McDonald said. Raab said: “That’s news to me, I wasn’t aware of that. It’s not clear to me that that is factually accurate.”
He added: “I have discussed this with the prime minister over the last 24 hours. It is not my understanding that he was directly briefed.”
Asked if Johnson had specifically said he was not briefed, Raab added: “To be honest with you, I didn’t ask him. He didn’t raise it.”
McDonald’s letter, sent to Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary standards commissioner, and tweeted on Tuesday morning, appears to demolish the insistence of No 10 spokespeople and a series of ministers that Johnson was not aware of any “specific” allegations against Pincher before last week.
On Monday, Johnson’s official spokesman amended this to argue that the prime minister had been aware of allegations, but that these were “either resolved or did not proceed to a formal complaint”.
In a scathing letter, McDonald, a long-time senior diplomat who was permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office from 2015 to 2020 and became a peer in 2021, made it clear he believed this was also untrue.
In the summer of 2019, shortly after Pincher became a Foreign Office minister, McDonald wrote, a group of officials complained about his behaviour, McDonald said, saying the claims were “similar” to those that emerged last week. An investigation upheld the complaint and Pincher apologised, he added.
It was, McDonald wrote, “not true” for No 10 to claim either that Johnson did not knew about earlier complaints, or the amended line about the only complaint he knew about being unsubstantiated.
“Mr Johnson was briefed in person about the initiation and outcome of the investigation,” the letter said. “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.”
He added: “I am aware that is unusual to write to you and simultaneously publicise the letter. I am conscious of the duty owed to the target of an investigation but I act out of of my duty towards the victims.
“Mr Pincher deceived me and others in 2019. He cannot be allowed to use the confidentiality of the process three years ago to pursue his predatory behaviour in other contexts.”
Talking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday, McDonald said he knew for certain that a senior official briefed Johnson because that official then told him.
McDonald said: “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.”
He singled out media comments by the children’s minister, Will Quince, on Monday that Johnson was “not aware of specific allegations”, saying: “The categorical assurance was wrong.”
Asked about the letter on Today, Raab confirmed the investigation had taken place. He said: “Simon and myself both spoke to Chris Pincher in person to make it clear that the inappropriate behaviour should never be repeated.”
Raab said he told the then-chief whip, but did not know if the prime minister was informed.