By Amy Gibbons, Gavin Cordon and Dominic McGrath, PA Political Staff
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was aware of a formal complaint against Chris Pincher when the MP was a Foreign Office minister before his appointment to the Tory whips’ office, it has been reported.
Downing Street confirmed on Monday that Mr Johnson knew of concerns about Mr Pincher’s conduct when he made him deputy chief whip in February.
Mr Johnson’s official spokesman said while he knew of claims that were "either resolved or did not progress to a formal complaint", it was not considered appropriate to block the appointment based on "unsubstantiated allegations".
"There was no formal complaint at that time," he said.
However, the BBC later reported that Mr Johnson was made aware of a formal complaint about Mr Pincher’s "inappropriate behaviour" while the MP was a minister in the Foreign Office from 2019-20.
The broadcaster said then-foreign secretary Dominic Raab was also aware of this complaint, which triggered a disciplinary process overseen by the Cabinet Office that confirmed misconduct by Mr Pincher.
A UK government spokesperson said: "There are robust procedures in place for any members of staff to raise allegations of misconduct. It is long-standing policy not to comment on any matters involving individual cases."
Mr Pincher has been approached for comment.
Downing Street – and a succession of ministers – had previously stated that Mr Johnson had not been aware of any "specific allegations" against Mr Pincher.
The UK's former deputy chief whip plunged his government into a new crisis when he dramatically quit last week over allegations he groped two men at a Conservative private members’ club.
He had previously resigned from the whips’ office in 2017 over claims he made unwanted advances to a young activist, but was later reinstated after being cleared by an internal Conservative Party investigation.
Over the weekend, however, details emerged in the press of further claims about alleged sexual advances to men – including two fellow Conservative MPs – over a period of years.
Mr Pincher has denied the allegations to the newspapers which carried them.
However, Mr Johnson’s spokesman said the UK prime minster had been aware of the "speculation" there had been about Mr Pincher over a number of years when he made him deputy chief whip.
"I can’t get into too much detail, but he did take advice on some of the allegations that had been made, but there was no formal complaint at that time and it was deemed not appropriate to stop an appointment simply because of unsubstantiated allegations," the spokesman said.
The spokesman declined to comment on a claim by Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings that the Prime Minister had referred to the MP as "Pincher by name, pincher by nature".
"I’m simply not going to comment on content of what was or wasn’t said in private conversations," the spokesman said.
Asked on Monday evening whether it was appropriate for Mr Johnson to make Mr Pincher deputy chief whip despite claims about his conduct, Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested the PM had been working off "rumours".
He told LBC’s Tonight With Andrew Marr: "There were rumours. I think prime ministers have to be just, they can’t just say, ‘I’ve heard a bit of gossip and I think you’ve done something that I wouldn’t approve of’.
"You can’t judge people on rumours, that’s fundamentally unjust. There are rumours about all sorts of people that turn out never to come to anything."
The new questions over what the PM knew before appointing Mr Pincher to the whips’ office will overshadow Mr Johnson’s attempts to soldier on with his premiership, as he hailed "an important moment in our mission to ease the burden on households and rebuild our economy".
Mr Johnson made the remarks ahead of a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, where ministers will look to planned changes to National Insurance thresholds coming into effect on Wednesday.
At the time Mr Pincher was appointed – alongside new chief whip Chris Heaton-Harris – Mr Johnson was facing pressure from Tory MPs seeking to oust him over lockdown parties in Downing Street.
The two men had run a shadow whipping operation – reportedly codenamed Operation Save Big Dog – to shore up his position and Mr Johnson was said to have wanted them to take over the full whips’ office.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said the appointment of Mr Pincher as Tory deputy chief whip was another example of poor judgment by Mr Johnson.
"I have got no sympathy with a Prime Minister who repeatedly makes bad judgment calls," he told Sky News.
"We have been living with a version of this story for month after month after month. Bad judgment by a man who puts himself above everything. I don’t have any sympathy for him."
Although Mr Pincher quit his government position on Thursday evening, Mr Johnson has faced criticism it was not until 5pm on Friday that he finally had the whip withdrawn and was expelled from the parliamentary Conservative Party.
Mr Pincher faces an investigation by Parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme after one of the men he allegedly groped last week at the Carlton Club submitted a formal complaint.
In a statement at the weekend, the Tamworth MP – who now sits as an independent – said he would co-operate fully with the inquiry.
"As I told the Prime Minister, I drank far too much on Wednesday night, embarrassing myself and others, and I am truly sorry for the upset I caused," he said.
"The stresses of the last few days, coming on top of those over the last several months, have made me accept that I will benefit from professional medical support.
"I am in the process of seeking that now, and I hope to be able to return to my constituency duties as soon as possible."