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From the file

Chequers | In March 2020 Boris Johnson pre-recorded a broadcast in which he told the country to stay at home. Tortoise believes he then ignored his own advice by moving back and forth between London and Chequers

The Ministry of Untruths

The Ministry of Untruths

Boris Johnson’s history of lies – and the story of one crucial fortnight in March 2020

Why this story?

The Cambridge English dictionary defines a fib as a small lie that does not cause harm. It is a well-worn device in Boris Johnson’s toolkit, and one that has served him for decades – from Eton to Brussels to City Hall. But perhaps a life-long fibber, in time, always becomes a liar. And perhaps a fib in Downing Street, from the lips of a prime minister, is always magnified. This week’s story is about how the character of the prime minister has come to change the office he occupies; a place where deceit and deception appear to have become common currency.


Transcript

Lara Spirit, narrating: Hidden in the Chiltern Hills, 41 miles from London, deep in the Buckinghamshire countryside, there’s a 16th-century manor house.With a heated swimming pool, a tennis court, ten bedrooms, deep carpeted bathrooms, a galleried great hall, 1000 acres of land, and staff constantly to hand. 

This is Chequers. It was given to the office of the Prime Minister just over a century ago. To deal with what these days we might call ‘a first-world problem’: what if the leaders of the future weren’t as wealthy as the ones who’d been before?

Lewis Vickers reading out the 1917 Chequers Act: “It is not possible to foresee or foretell from what classes or conditions of life the future wielders of power in this country will be drawn.”

Lara Spirit, narrating: This is from the 1917 Chequers Act:

Lewis Vickers reading out the 1917 Chequers Act: “Some may be as in the past men of wealth and famous descent; some may belong to the world of trade and business; others may spring from the ranks of the manual toilers.”

Lara Spirit, narrating: I’ve spent some time near Chequers while I’ve been working on this story. In the pubs and the farm shop that Prime Ministers have visited for decades while they’ve been staying in the big house. 

I came across people who happily remember a time when Boris Johnson popped in for beer and chips, or a New Years’ Eve with the family. 

One of the pubs, the Plough at Cadsden, feels very ordinary when you go in; but there’s a sense that you’re close to power.

Sound from Prime Minister David Cameron’s meeting with President Xi Jinping

After all, not many pubs have pictures of the Chinese president Xi Jingping on the walls, hanging out with David Cameron.  

A Chinese firm bought the whole pub in honour of President Xi after he came here.

Chequers has been a silent witness to some of Britain’s defining moments. It’s where Neville Chamberlain came close to a nervous breakdown after the Munich pact; where Churchill made a number of radio speeches; where Denis and Margaret Thatcher, then Norma and John Major, enjoyed TV meals on trays. 

Friday night at Chequers…

Panorama

Lara Spirit, narrating: It’s a place to relax. 

Theresa May and her husband Philip are watching a quiz show… 

Panaroma

Lara Spirit, narrating: And it’s a funny window into the mind of prime ministers. Tony Blair hosted Geri Halliwell here, and David Cameron invited Claudia Schiffer.

The story I want to tell you is about this Elizabethan manor house, and who was there over twelve crucial days, back in March 2020. 

But it’s also a story about Boris Johnson’s conduct in a defining moment of his premiership about how he told the country to do one thing – and then, almost immediately, did something different. 

Ceri Thomas: I texted him on the 17th of June 2020, and I said: “the question is, did the Prime Minister visit Chequers between March 23rd and March 27th this year?” 

Lara Spirit, narrating: I’m Lara Spirit and I’m a reporter at Tortoise. This week on the Slow Newscast – The Ministry of Untruths: Boris Johnson’s history of lies. 

Lara Spirit: Can you talk a bit about how the story first began? 

Ceri Thomas: So in the middle of June 2020, we got a tip from a person who doesn’t work at Chequers, but is familiar with it. 

Lara Spirit, narrating: This is Ceri Thomas, one of my colleagues at Tortoise.

Ceri Thomas: And that person told us that they understood that Boris Johnson had been going there back in March, so three months before the tip came in, And, as you can remember at the time, we’d seen resignations for breaches of Covid rules. And so I think we were struck immediately, this could be quite a big story. This could be real trouble for Boris Johnson, if it’s true.

I tried to get hold of his Director of Communications Lee Cain, so I texted him on the 17th June 2020, and I said, the question is, did the Prime Minister visit Chequers between March 23rd and March 27th this year and the next day, the 18th June, I hadn’t heard back. So I texted him again and said, are you gonna deal with this, or do you want me to talk to somebody else? Later that day, five o’clock on the 18th June, Lee Caine texted me back and he said: “Hi Ceri, he didn’t visit during the dates you mentioned.”

Lara Spirit: So he said he wasn’t there.

Ceri Thomas: So it was unequivocal, but still we’d had this really good tip off, we thought we were onto something. So I went back to him the next day, the next morning, and I said, look, I’m sorry for going round again, but I just want to be clear that you’re not wriggling on the language here. That when I say he visited, don’t get hung up on the word, tell me was he there in any capacity between March 23rd and the 27th? This time he got back to me quicker, it took him a couple of hours and he said, same answer as before I’m afraid. 

Lara Spirit: And you believe that he was telling you the truth?

Ceri Thomas: I’ve been dealing with Downing Street in various ways since probably 1990, or maybe just a bit before then, it was actually earlier than that.

And I thought just based on like three decades of dealing with the Director of Communications, he wouldn’t just categorically deny something that was true. Might prevaricate, might tell you a half truth, might use any of these sort of traditional options, but I  just didn’t think that you would get a flat out lie.What a chump, hey?

I asked around, I asked friends, who’ve also dealt with Downing Street for a long time and showed them the texts. And there was nobody who thought it was a possibility that it might be a straight lie. And so we basically thought our source must have got it wrong, somehow. There must’ve been some confusion, but at that point effectively, we gave up, we thought it must be true that the Prime Minister didn’t visit in that period and we left it alone.

Lara Spirit, narrating: More than a year later, on 30th November last year. 

The Mirror described how 40 or 50 people were said to have been crammed into a medium sized room. It was a Covid nightmare. We know from a source that there were drinks, and there were nibbles and there were games.

News clip

Lara Spirit, narrating: The Mirror breaks the story of the first Downing Street party. 

Now a video has emerged appearing to show the Prime Ministers former press spokesperson and some of her Downing Street colleagues laughing and joking about… 

News clip

Lara Spirit, narrating: And a week later ITV news broadcast a video of Downing Street staff joking about cheese and wine during a mock press conference

It was a business meeting, this is recorded. This fictional party was a business meeting, and it was not socially distanced. 

Allegra Stratton

Lara Spirit, narrating: The denials came thick and fast

It has been repeatedly assured, since these allegations emerged, that there was no party. I don’t even know if an event took place, but if it did no rules were broken. I have been reassured that all guidance was closely followed.

News clip

Lara Spirit, narrating: A trickle of revelations turned into a flood. And we started to see a pattern – of denying stories until they became undeniable.

That the No 10 garden is a place where meetings were had and indeed business was conducted. There were ten minutes where people were sharing cake. I don’t think that constitutes a party in the way some of the allegations that are being investigated. 

News clip

Lara Spirit, narrating: Maybe Downing Street hadn’t been straight with us either, back in June 2020 about Boris Johnson’s visits to Chequers?

I said Downing Street there – but actually this isn’t a story about staffers at No.10. It’s about the character of the man at the top, and how his character changed an institution.

My colleague Matt d’Ancona has known Boris Johnson for years. Sometimes they’ve been close. 

Matt d’Ancona: We had our I would say sort of final falling out over his article in 2018 about Muslim women in religious clothing. 

Lara Spirit, narrating: More recently, definitely not. 

Matt d’Ancona: He was at the time, this is 2018, slightly in the doldrums and I’d found out that he’d seen Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and Bannon had said words to the effect of “get off your knees, do something that makes the plaster come off the ceiling.” It was interesting, it was weeks after he’d launched this, so I’m fairly sure it was calculated. He was furious with me about what I wrote about, not only with Steve Bannon, but also the Islamophobia piece. He sent me a series of furious texts demanding retraction and so on and I texted back, look, you know, I’m not going to retract it, so enjoy your evening. And I then went to the cinema with my children.

And when I got out there were, I think where memory serves, there were more than 20 missed calls. 

Lara Spirit: Was he denying that he told mistruths in this piece?

Matt d’Ancona: Well, he initially denied he’d met Bannon and then that started to soften a bit which is a familiar pattern in his relationship with the truth, is that he’ll issue an outright denial, first of all and then it starts to, “as memory serves,” he’ll say, “I think I only met him once or I may have discussed with him”, but this is the pattern of behavior, both in private life and his public life. He always says, no, I didn’t. When he was accused of having had an affair with Petronella Wyatt, he used the phrase, it was an inverted pyramid of pitfall, which, you know, it was so classically him. But also the opposite to the truth because he had and this is how he operates. His initial practice is to say, I didn’t do anything, whether it’s lying or meeting Steve Bannon or having an affair or breaking Covid lockdown rules, he just says, I didn’t do it, it wasn’t me, it was someone else. And then he tries to sort of find a way, a path through what people are saying and what he is willing to admit to. 

Lara Spirit, narrating: Matt isn’t alone. What’s striking is how many people who’ve worked closely with Boris Johnson over the years have ended up distrusting him. More than once, they’ve fired him because he didn’t tell the truth. 

He was sacked from the Times over a front-page article with a made-up quote. Then sacked as a minister by the Tory leader Michael Howard for lying about an affair. 

It’s that pattern of behaviour which Boris Johnson is accused of repeating as he tried to dismiss the allegations of parties at Downing Street. 

Before Christmas last year, in our investigation, this is what the picture looked like. We had that tip, that Boris Johnson broke his own lockdown rules by going to Chequers. Our source was adamant: they’d got this right.

And the way Downing Street handled the stories of parties cast doubt on the whole operation there. It didn’t just look evasive, it looked dishonest. So our story – which they’d shut down so categorically – was worth another look. I went back to the beginning. What did we know for sure?

I’ve developed mild symptoms of coronavirus.

Boris Johnson on catching Covid

Lara Spirit, narrating: We knew Boris Johnson caught Covid on the 27th of March 2020, 

I am working from home, I am self-isolating and that is entirely the right thing to do.

Boris Johnson on catching Covid

Lara Spirit, narrating: And he was in Downing Street then. So the 27th of March became one bookend. The other was March the 16th. It was one of the big days of early lockdown.  When Boris Johnson advised all of us to stop unnecessary contact and travel. 

If he’d visited his second home at Chequers after that, he’d have been breaking his own guidance. So I refocused on the 16th to the 27th of March. You’ll remember that time – because we all do. 

The uncertainty and fear; the handwashing orders and horrifying scenes in Italy; the incongruously beautiful weather. Coronavirus briefings had started earlier in the month. People had begun to die from Covid-19. And just a few days earlier – on the 12th of March – we had that strangely chilling message;

I must level with you, I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.

Boris Johnson on the 12th March 2020

Lara Spirit, narrating: Most of us were still going to work, or university, or school – still in denial, really – but that Monday 16th we all knew more restrictions were coming.

It’s 4:30, you’re watching a BBC News special with the latest on the Coronavirus pandemic and we’ll be live in Downing Street for the Prime Minister’s news conference very shortly. So far 1,543 confirmed cases of the virus in the UK.

BBC News

Lara Spirit, narrating: I remember sitting in my university library in the days leading up to this, constantly refreshing a website and seeing the hundreds of thousands of Covid cases around the world tick reliably – and terrifyingly – up and up. 

I remember rushing home from university on the 15th, and almost everyone else doing the same. The hallways and courtyards were clogged up with suitcases.

I remember going for a walk with my family – worrying aloud in that bright sun about what would follow. And then I remember watching Boris Johnson’s address, and hearing his new instructions for the first time:  

Now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel. We need people to start working from home where they possibly can. And you should avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues.

Boris Johnson on the 16th March 2020 

Lara Spirit, narrating: So by Thursday 19th, a lot of us were at home, and the national mood was sombre.

Better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.

Queen Elizabeth’s statement on the 19th March 2020 

Lara Spirit, narrating: There was a definite sense we were all in this together. 

We took it all very seriously. I remember getting up early to go to the supermarket when there wouldn’t be many people around. Pleading with my grandmother to stay away from the allotment, in case she got close to anybody.

And watching my sister go to work every day in a care home. I feared for her, but I never suspected that, by the end of the first wave, a third of all the people she was looking after would be dead.  

And there were particular tensions over second homes. Bad enough that on the 23rd of March, the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, had to make the guidance clear:

Well, we’ve said that people should not take unnecessary journeys, no unnecessary travel. And I don’t regard going to your holiday home as a necessary journey. So people should stay put. 

Matt Hancock statement on the 23rd March 2020

Lara Spirit, narrating: Signs started to go up in coastal resorts saying things like ‘this is not time for a holiday’. ‘Locals only’ was scrawled in the sand in Cornwall. ‘Go home rats’ written on a sign in north Wales. Then, the big announcement. 

The time has now come for us all to do more.

Boris Johnson statement on the 23rd March 2020

Lara Spirit, narrating: The one that everyone remembers; that came on the Monday.

From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.

Boris Johnson ministerial statement on the 23rd March 2020 

Lara Spirit, narrating: It was the 23rd of March. You probably remember the date, and it’s key to this story. 

The Prime Minister could hardly have been clearer. So we did what he said. We began that strange period – of deserted streets and town centres, clear motorways and empty skies – together.

People around the UK are waking up to unprecedented restrictions on the way we live. 

Today

Lara Spirit, narrating: Crowds became a thing of the past. Even joggers were frightening – I remember being shouted at that day on a run as I got too close to a couple:

The exercising jogger, the puffing and panting jogger, you can feel that breath calm and you can sometimes actually feel yourself inhale it. So there’s no doubt that there is a danger there.

News clip

Lara Spirit, narrating: When I was first asked to look into the story we’d been given – that Boris Johnson had travelled between Downing Street and Chequers at this time – I just couldn’t believe it happened.

It seemed unthinkable. And Downing Street had already, categorically, denied that rules were broken. So I asked Downing Street the question we’d asked before: had the Prime Minister made use of Chequers during this time? 

Then a striking thing happened. They answered a completely different question: They said “This claim that the PM did not comply with lockdown regulations is entirely inaccurate”. 

Odd. So I asked again, and the press officer said: “we’ll have to get back to you”. I waited. And I got another answer to another question I hadn’t asked. I was told Boris Johnson complied with the rules when they came into law – on 26 March, at 1pm. 

I’ve gone through all the Coronavirus announcements around this time, the 26th. Nobody talked about the 26th. That key announcement was on 23rd.  

From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.

Boris Johnson on the 23rd March 2020 

Lara Spirit, narrating: It began with immediate effect. Not in three days’ time. “You must stay at home now.”

Eventually I dragged an admission out of Downing Street. It was implicit, not explicit. But I was pretty clear that – until 26 March at 1pm – the PM had made use of his second home. He’d been to Chequers. He’d travelled between his two homes between 16 and 27 March 2020. It was time for me to publish what I knew. 

This was the point when Downing Street stopped denying and started justifying. The next message I got was about Carrie Johnson, Boris Johnson’s wife. They told me: “At that time, Mrs Johnson was heavily pregnant and had been placed in a vulnerable category and advised to minimise social contact. 

“In line with clinical guidance and to minimise the risk to her they were based at Chequers during this period, with the Prime Minister commuting to Downing Street to work.”

Commuting. Downing Street had confirmed the story. The one they’d denied – in terms – a year and a half earlier. To get this far I’d tried emailing Downing Street, I’d tried Freedom of Information requests

Dan Bloom: My colleague Pippa Crerar, who’s broken most of the Downing Street party stories, along with ITV’s Paul brand, she had the first ones I’m contractually obliged to say, I think the best ones, of course.

Lara Spirit, narrating: This is Dan Bloom, Online political editor at the Mirror newspaper

Dan Bloom: But when she breaks those stories, first of all, she’ll have them from her anonymous sources, now sometimes within Downing Street itself, because how else do these things come out?

Lara Spirit, narrating: Like the Mirror story ours began with an anonymous source. I wanted to know if Dan thought this evasiveness was normal.

Dan Bloom: That kind of shifting narrative and wanting to essentially provide a reason to say I did nothing, you know, I’m sorry, but I did nothing wrong is  common to many, many politicians, but is perhaps more pronounced in Boris Johnson than we’ve seen in some others recently. 

Lara Spirit, narrating: Dan’s been a member of the lobby for 6 years. 

Dan Bloom: And what the lobby is an organisation of journalists, lots of different papers, websites, and broadcasters who essentially get the chance to question No 10 at a daily or twice daily briefing and a couple of privileges that no one really uses anymore, such as being able to stand in member’s lobby and ask them questions, as long as you follow some very arcane rules, such as not being allowed to sit down and not holding a notebook. And I think there’s some talk of having your hands behind your back. I’m not a hundred percent sure on that one. 

Lara Spirit, narrating: Tortoise doesn’t have a lobby journalist so we don’t have to stand with our hands behind our backs, but we also don’t have that daily access.

Dan Bloom: Essentially journalists go into No 10, it’s actually No 9, in that sort of £2.4 million briefing room. And they ask questions to the Prime Minister’s official spokesman off-camera, but it is on the record.

Lara Spirit, narrating: In reality it’s often a frustrating experience

Dan Bloom: Often the conversation will go something like, can you rule such and such out and No 10 will give an answer that is not yes or no. And you’ll say just to be clear though, can you rule such and such out and you might ask a third time or perhaps a fourth time, and then sometimes journalists might say, just to be clear, we’re going to go away from this briefing writing that you can’t rule out X, Y, Z. Are you sure you don’t want to say anything because that is what we’re going to write because you’re not ruling it out. Generally you have the right to push as much as you like, but No 10 are also completely free to Stonewall the questions because there’s no law and there’s no hard rules.

Lara Spirit, narrating: As I was discovering… 

Lara Spirit: You asked about this story of Boris Johnson allegedly driving shortly after making his stay at home speech on the 23rd of March to his second home in Chequers in a lobby briefing. I’m just wondering what it was that you asked him, what their response to your question was.

Dan Bloom: We essentially asked for more detail because thanks to your reporting there was some awareness of the fact that Boris Johnson was commuting to work, is how they put it I think, from Chequers during that crucial period, kind of roughly the week after March the 16th, wasn’t it, when he had told people avoid unnecessary travel, but it wasn’t actually laid down in the law and this was essentially a classic example of asking the same question in different ways, and just trying to get more detail because the thing about a lockdown breaches, or alleged lockdown breaches, is the stories hinge entirely on the detail. Because for example, the law will change at 1:00 PM on March the 26th. So if he had been away from the place where he was living without reasonable excuse under the law, then after 1:00 PM on March 26th, he could potentially have been breaching the law, but before then he wouldn’t have been breaching the law, might’ve been breaching guidance, might not.

So it’s a crucial factor in how you look at the story and how you approach it. So we’re asking questions like when exactly did Boris Johnson return from No 10 and they wouldn’t tell us that, saying they wouldn’t get into individual movements. And then we ask, well, why can’t you get into the individual movements? Because usually the reason you can’t do that is the security risk, and there’s no security risk of something that happened two years ago, unless terrorists obtains a Tardis and goes back in time. You need to ask these questions in a public forum to get a handle on exactly what they’re saying about each aspect of it and which bits need pursuing further. 

Lara Spirit, narrating: One of the interesting – and, actually, difficult – aspects of this story is the role Carrie Johnson plays in it.

There’s a lot of Carrie-bashing. Just low-grade sexism pointed at the prime minister’s wife. 

There are also a bunch of people who’d hate to think that’s what motivates them. But they still fret about Carrie’s ‘unhappy influence’ on Boris. Even if they can see that she’s not the first prime minister’s partner who’s had something to say. 

So here’s my experience of trying to understand where Carrie Johnson fits into the Chequers story. It’s all gone through her press advisor.

I’ve been given the runaround on Carrie Johnson’s behalf as much as I have on Boris’s. 

The original position – the one we heard a few minutes ago – was that Carrie Johnson had gone to Chequers because she was pregnant and vulnerable. And stayed there. But I heard she’d actually come back to Downing St between those dates I cared about.

I was told that was “categorically false and completely fabricated”. Except it turned out to be true. I came across an Instagram post. A photo which seemed to have been posted from Downing Street when her press person said Carrie was in Chequers. So the line changed. 

“In the interests of being transparent” they now realised Carrie Johnson had come back to London. For a scan. Some people will sympathise with Carrie Johnson’s dilemma. In March 2020, she was quite heavily pregnant. There was the choice of a flat in Downing Street – with nobody to look after her, and her husband as busy as he’d ever be in his life – or a country mansion with staff. 

On the account we’ve been given, it was Carrie Johnson’s pregnancy which was the decisive factor in the move to Chequers. And Boris Johnson who concluded that he was within his rights to commute from there. 

In all that, the Carrie-bashers would see more evidence of her outsized influence on her husband’s decisions. But the truth is, we don’t know enough to make that judgement. 

We don’t know who made the call – the prime minister or his wife?

But there’s definitely an influence. And it led to Boris and Carrie Johnson – together – doing something which was against the rules of lockdown. And then making it very difficult for us to find out about it.

How fair is it to pull the strands of this story together? The lies and the deceptions. And see them all leading back to Boris Johnson. 

We know that more than once in his life, he’s been caught lying. In ways that were serious enough at the time to hurt his career. That makes him very, very unusual. 

Can you think of anyone you know who that’s happened to?

But as I said earlier, this isn’t only a question of one man’s standards and the way he behaves. It matters much more if that man – now that he’s Prime Minister – has started to change the character of the government, of Downing Street, maybe of British politics in general?.

Jill Rutter: My favourite comment about Downing Street was the Gordon Brown comment when Damian McBride was sacked for smearing George Osborne’s wife. And Gordon Brown went outside and said I take full responsibility, the person responsible has been sacked. Which isn’t really taking full responsibility, you might say, that was right out of the Boris Johnson playbook… 

Lara Spirit, narrating: This is Jill Rutter. 

Jill Rutter: I think the character of the prime minister is enormously important. It’s important as to whether it’s a sort of relaxed atmosphere or if it’s a hard working atmosphere.

Lara Spirit, narrating: Jill was a senior civil servant for 20 years, and she now thinks and writes about government

Jill Rutter: You have to remember the thing about Downing Street is it’s not like any normal office. It’s small, it’s much bigger than it looks from the front door, but it’s much smaller than any sort of normal government department. It’s like a rabbit warren, and critically also it’s the prime minister’s home. Now, none of the prime ministers, you know, that I was working with had children on site, but when you had Tony Blair there he had his children living there. Gordon Brown, similarly, David Cameron, similarly, and now the prime minister has a couple of incredibly young children living there. So it’s a very odd environment. 

The prime minister may not know absolutely everything that’s going on in Downing Street, but he sets the tone for the place. And you know, you basically do things in Downing Street, you need to think that the prime minister will be happy with what you’re doing. 

So even if the prime minister doesn’t directly give the okay to things, then it’s the prime minister who creates the sort of enabling environment, the authorising environment, for what his team are doing on his behalf, because ultimately every single person that works in Downing Street knows that they only have one source of authority to effectively lord it over the rest of government. It’s nothing intrinsic to their role, it’s because they are thought to be speaking on behalf of the prime minister. 

Lara Spirit, narrating: Anyone who’s ever compared Boris Johnson to Donald Trump – anybody who’s said he’s our version – tends to get shouted down. “Trump’s a one-off. He’s an outsider. Boris Johnson is much more of a mainstream politician”.

But I wonder, in this particular respect. You suspect Boris Johnson might call it fibbing. And he certainly seems to smile when he gets caught. But lying – deliberately and unapologetically – has never been a British political tradition. 

Corner-cutting, exaggeration, half-answers, dodging the question: yes. We’re used to all of that. But not a lie. Not the kind we think Lee Cain, Boris Johnson’s director of communications, told us when we first asked about Chequers.

We haven’t been able to get hold of Lee Cain to get his version of events. We have tried.

But two things occur to me. First, I find it hard to believe that a man in his position would have deceived us like he did unless – at the very least – he thought his boss would be OK with it.

And second, it changes everything.  

Lara Spirit: Are you surprised to find out that Lee had told you something different to what we eventually unearthed had happened? 

Ceri Thomas: Yeah. I’m still surprised because I think it makes me feel rather slow on the uptake because actually what I realised is that I hadn’t picked up on the fact that the character of Downing Street, the whole Downing Street operation had changed. That I was still playing by rules that had applied for sort of 30 years of my working life. But that lot, they’d moved on.

Lara Spirit, narrating: So it’s a challenge for journalism, too. The American press agonised over how to deal with Donald Trump’s lies. There hasn’t been anything like the same soul-searching in this country – about what accountability means if people in power have decided telling the truth doesn’t matter any more. My experience reporting this story has left me thinking it’s time to start.

What we unearthed about Chequers is just one example of evasion and hypocrisy at the very top of British politics – but it matters. It matters because among all the allegations about the prime minister, the question of culpability – of who is responsible for pandemic rule breaking – rests on a discussion about who sets the tone, the culture, the permissiveness in Downing Street. This was a story of wrongdoing, not by these staffers but by the man at the very top – a Prime Minister whose life has, so far, afforded him a unique license to lie.

This episode was presented and reported by Lara Spirit. It was produced by Katie Gunning and edited by Ceri Thomas. Sound design is by Studio Klong