Downing Street has confirmed that members of Boris Johnson’s team intervened following the publication of a story about his wife Carrie in The Times, but denied that the prime minister himself contacted the paper to complain.
The story, which alleged that Mr Johnson had attempted to install Carrie in a £100,000-a-year job in the Foreign Office at a time when he was conducting a secret affair with her, appeared in the first edition of the newspaper on Saturday, but vanished from later copies and a version also disappeared from the Mail Online website.
Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson confirmed that No 10 was in contact with The Times before and after the publication of the first edition, but denied that the prime minister himself had contacted deputy editor Tony Gallagher, who was in charge of the paper that night.
It is understood that no legal action has been taken by No 10 in relation to the story.
The PM’s spokesperson said that he was unable to issue a formal comment on the allegation, as it related to the period when Mr Johnson was foreign secretary from 2016-2018.
But he told reporters: “Others have made clear this story is not true, including Mrs Johnson’s spokesperson.
“I would point you to the denials and statements put out by Mrs Johnson on this and by No 10 colleagues over the weekend.”
The spokesperson added: “We were approached before publication and spoke to them then. I think we spoke to them after publication as well. I don’t know the exact timeline of it.”
The story, written by senior political journalist Simon Walters, expanded on claims in a biography of Ms Johnson, First Lady: Intrigue at the Court of Carrie and Boris Johnson, written by Tory donor and peer Lord Ashcroft earlier this year.
It claimed that the idea of appointing Ms Johnson – then working in the Conservative Party press office as Carrie Symonds – fell apart when close aides advised against the plan. Mr Johnson was still married to Marina Wheeler at the time.
The story alleged that Mr Johnson’s senior aide Ben Gascoigne, now deputy chief of staff at No 10, threatened to quit his Foreign Office post if Carrie was given a job.
Responding to The Times story, a spokesperson for Ms Johnson said: “These claims are totally untrue.”
But Mr Walters told the New European: “I stand by the story 100 per cent. I was in lengthy and detailed communication with No 10 at a high level, Ben Gascoigne and Mrs Johnson’s spokeswoman for up to 48 hours before the paper went to press. At no point did any of them offer an on-the-record denial of any element of the story.”
“Nor have any of these three offered an on-the-record denial to me since. No 10 and Mr Gascoigne did not deny it off the record either.”
Naomi Smith, CEO of democracy campaign group Best for Britain, said: “This revelation from the heart of the government suggests a violation of press freedom at a time when public trust is already low, so serious questions must be answered as to why Johnson’s staff thought it appropriate to intervene on a story of public interest.
“A free press is a fundamental part of a functioning democracy. It must be protected from the influence of those in power.”