Cheer seemed to be in short supply this morning as ministers gathered inside the Cabinet Room amid another scandal engulfing Boris Johnson’s premiership.
Secretaries of state sat glum-faced while the prime minister was accused of a “cover up” on what he knew and when about Chris Pincher, who resigned as deputy chief whip last week after being accused of groping two men at a private members’ club for Tories in central London.
Pictures from inside the Cabinet Room show some of Mr Johnson’s most loyal allies appearing to look somewhat distracted, lacking enthusiasm for what the boss had to say.
Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, appeared to be gazing into space at the other side of the room as Mr Johnson attempted to rally the troops after another difficult few days.
Sat next to her is Jacob Rees-Mogg, the government efficiencies minister and Suella Braverman, the attorney general, both of whom were struggling to manage a smile.
The meeting came as Lord McDonald of Salford, the ex-permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, said the account given by Downing Street of how Mr Pincher came to be made deputy chief whip was “not true”.
As Lord McDonald took the highly unusual step of submitting a formal complaint to the parliamentary standards commissioner, Labour said it was clear the PM had “lied”.
Following Mr Pincher’s dramatic resignation last week, No 10 has been accused of shifting its account of what Mr Johnson knew of his past conduct when he made him deputy chief whip in February.
In his letter, Lord McDonald said that in the summer of 2019, shortly after Mr Pincher was made Europe minister, a complaint by a group of officials about his conduct was investigated and upheld, and the prime minister informed of the outcome.
Downing Street initially claimed that Mr Johnson had not been aware of any “specific allegations” against Mr Pincher at the time of the February reshuffle.
But after reports over the weekend of repeated alleged instances of Mr Pincher making unwanted sexual advances to men, it said that while the PM had known of concerns, they had been either “resolved” or there had been no formal complaint and that any allegations were unsubstantiated.
However, Lord McDonald said this was still not accurate.
“Mr Johnson was briefed in person about the initiation and outcome of the investigation. There was a ‘formal complaint’,” he wrote.
“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.”
Speaking later on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Lord McDonald said that Mr Johnson had been told of the 2019 investigation at the time by a senior Cabinet Office official.
“I know that the senior official briefed the prime minister in person because that official told me so at the time,” he said.
Deputy PM Dominic Raab, who was foreign secretary at the time, said he had asked Lord McDonald to investigate a complaint of “inappropriate conduct” in October 2019 but that the mandarin had concluded disciplinary action was not warranted.
“That doesn’t mean that inappropriate behaviour didn’t take place. We were clear that what happened was inappropriate, but we resolved it without going for a formal disciplinary process,” he told LBC radio.
“I spoke directly to Chris Pincher in no uncertain terms and I referred it to the Cabinet Office to seek that assurance.”
Mr Raab said that while he had informed the then chief whip, Mark Spencer, there had been no reason to tell Mr Johnson.
“I have discussed this with the prime minister over the last 24 hours, it is not my understanding that he was directly briefed,” he told the Today programme.
However Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said it was clear that Mr Johnson had gone ahead with Mr Pincher’s appointment, despite being aware of the seriousness of the complaints against him.