The Times swiftly withdrew a story that made allegations about the prime minister and his wife after Downing Street intervened to complain about it, No 10 has confirmed.
The piece alleged that Boris Johnson attempted to hire Carrie Symonds, who he has since married, as his taxpayer-funded chief of staff when he was foreign secretary and she was a Conservative party press chief.
The story claimed the plan fell apart when his closest advisers learned of the idea. Johnson was still married to the barrister Marina Wheeler at the time.
A spokesperson for Carrie Johnson told the Guardian the allegations were “totally untrue”. A Downing Street source described it as a “grubby, discredited story”.
However, the freelance journalist who wrote it, Simon Walters, has defended the article, which appeared on page five of some early print copies of Saturday’s Times but was dropped for later editions after the intervention from No 10.
On Monday Downing Street confirmed it contacted the newspaper on Friday night and asked it to retract the story.
The Times has so far refused to say why it agreed to remove the story although its website has been flooded with comments from readers demanding an explanation.
Political sources with knowledge of the incident have told the Guardian the original story is correct.
Dominic Cummings, a former adviser to Johnson who has become an arch critic of the prime minister, backed up the original story and went further, suggesting Johnson also attempted to appoint his wife to a government job in late 2020.
The prime minister’s spokesperson said they were unable to comment on Johnson’s activities before he became prime minister but said “others have made clear this story is untrue”.
The spokesperson denied Cummings’s claim that Johnson tried to get his wife a Downing Street job while prime minister.
The decision to remove the story is understood to have been made by Tony Gallagher, the Times’ deputy editor, who was standing in while the editor, John Witherow, was on leave.
A News UK spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on suggestions the company’s chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, was also involved in the discussions.
Guto Harri, the current Downing Street director of communications, was an adviser at News UK, the owner of the Times, between 2012 and 2015.
Contrary to online speculation, there is no superinjunction or specific legal issue preventing reporting of the story.
MailOnline published a rewritten version of the Times story on Saturday, only to also quietly delete it without explanation.
The story that the Times pulled was rereporting an allegation that appeared in a critical biography of Carrie Johnson by the Tory donor and peer Lord Ashcroft. The original accusation remains available online as part of the serialisation of the book – which is still hosted on MailOnline.