Exclusive: Allegations about Mr Johnson’s conduct while he was foreign secretary are ‘sordid and untrue’, according to source
Boris Johnson and then-girlfriend Carrie Symonds were not caught ‘in flagrante’ when a government minister walked in on them in Mr Johnson’s Commons office as foreign secretary, Downing Street has told The Independent.
A senior Number 10 source attacked “sordid and untrue” reports of the alleged incident that have surfaced in recent days.
The source said Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns, who raised concerns with colleagues after walking in on the couple in 2018, before their relationship was public, is “adamant that nothing remotely physical was going on”.
They were not found “in physical contact” by Mr Burns, stated the No 10 source, who said they had discussed the matter at length with him.
Asked if Mr Johnson had been questioned about the matter, the source said: “No, it’s not why he was elected prime minister. It’s neither here nor there.”
Put to the individual that Mr Johnson’s private conduct as foreign secretary in his official Parliamentary office was a legitimate matter of public interest, the Downing Street source said: “Conor has said it’s not true. They are mad old questions about a non-event many years ago before Boris got to Downing Street.”
The Independent revealed on Friday that Mr Burns was the mystery MP who walked in on Mr Johnson and Miss Symonds.
Mr Burns “flagged up” the couple’s relationship to Foreign Office officials after finding them “having a glass of wine together” alone because he had a “sixth sense” that their relationship was “one to watch,” Downing Street said on Friday.
A second source said that Mr Burns, one of Mr Johnson’s most loyal supporters, was “seriously shaken” after stumbling on Mr Johnson and Miss Symonds unannounced.
At the time, he was Mr Johnson’s parliamentary private secretary – “Boris’s bag carrier” as he light-heartedly referred to himself – with free access to him.
“He [Burns] wanted to know what to do about it,” said the source. “His only concern was to protect Boris. He is devoted to him.”
It has been previously reported that Mr Burns raised the issue with fellow Foreign Office aide Ben Gascoigne, who is now No 10 deputy chief of staff.
Alerted to concerns that Mr Johnson was having an extramarital relationship with Miss Symonds, Mr Gascoigne and other aides blocked a bid by Mr Johnson to appoint Miss Symonds as his £100,000 a year Foreign Office chief of staff.
They also discussed fears that it could expose foreign secretary Mr Johnson to the risk of blackmail if the information fell into the hands of Britain’s enemies.
A source said: “After Conor saw them together in his office, Boris’s staff knew it could be dangerous if the wrong people found out. They decided his private life was his own business but stopped him making her [Carrie] his chief of staff because it would have increased his exposure.”
Mr Johnson and Miss Symonds’ relationship was made public several months later in 2018 after his separation from second wife Marina was announced.
At the time of the incident witnessed by Mr Burns, Miss Symonds was the Tory party’s head of communications.
She left that post in the summer of 2018 after allegations that she had abused her expenses.
The claim that Mr Johnson and Miss Symonds were found in a ‘compromising situation’ by an unnamed Tory MP was first made in a biography of Carrie Johnson by Tory Lord Ashcroft earlier this year.
When the story resurfaced in The Times two weeks ago it led to a row when the paper dropped the story from later editions after No 10 intervened.
On Friday, Downing Street confirmed to The Independent that an incident occurred and that the mystery MP was Mr Burns, 49.
The source said: “Conor did walk in on them. He saw two people sitting having a glass of wine whereby [one] may have concluded where the relationship was heading. He did not interrupt anything. It was a case of “why are they having a drink?” and “let’s have a word with Ben [Gascoigne].”
“That is why he [Conor] thought it was something he needed to flag up. It was about a sixth sense that this was one to watch. The door was not locked. He didn’t barge in. He walked in to where they had had a meeting earlier and they were still chatting.”
At the height of the Partygate scandal, Mr Burns led the defence of Mr Johnson for attending a No 10 birthday party in his honour, which led to him being fined for breaking Covid lockdown laws. The MP played down the matter saying the prime minister had been “ambushed with cake”.
Mr Burns was appointed a trade minister when Mr Johnson succeeded Theresa May as Tory leader in July 2019. He resigned from the post in 2020 and was suspended as an MP for a week after a parliamentary inquiry found he had made “veiled threats” to use privilege to “further his family’s interests” in a financial dispute involving his father. Mr Johnson appointed him Northern Ireland Minister last September.
Mr Burns, Mr Johnson, Mrs Johnson and Mr Gascoigne all declined to comment.