Sue Gray Partygate meeting with Boris Johnson instigated by Downing Street official, No 10 admits

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Monday 23 May 2022 13:15
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Partygate: Boris Johnson's repeated denials and excuses

A controversial meeting between Boris Johnson and Partygate report author Sue Gray was instigated by a Downing Street official, No 10 has admitted.

The secret meeting sparked a furious row over the weekend, as Downing Street sources insisted that the senior civil servant requested to see the prime minister to discuss the timing of publication, amid claims that close Johnson allies are accusing her of “playing politics” with the report.

But Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson today said that the idea of a meeting was first raised by a senior No 10 official, who suggested to Ms Gray’s team that it would be “helpful” for her to request a meetingd about the “timings and publication process”. Ms Gray followed the suggestion up, and the meeting with Mr Johnson took place early in May.

The prime minister himself was not aware that the proposal for him to speak with Ms Gray for a second time - following an earlier meeting at the time of the publication of her interim report in January - had initially come from his own team, said the spokesperson. And asked if Mr Johnson suspected Ms Gray of “playing politics”, the spokesperson replied simply: “No.”

He added: “I wouldn’t normally get into source-quote briefings, but this is an independent investigation which is being led and overseen by an experienced civil servant working in line with their civil service code obligations.”

Neither Downing Street nor the Cabinet Office would comment on suggestions that pressure from No 10 resulted in the removal on Sunday of a senior official with responsibility for briefing the media about the activities of the Gray team.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said reports that the row over the secret meeting represented a “new low” for the government.

“I always had a concern that as we got to the publication of the Sue Gray report, there will be attempts by the Government to undermine her and undermine the report,” said Sir Keir.

“That’s what we’ve seen going on over the weekend in recent days, a new low for the Government.

“What we do know is there was industrial-scale law-breaking in Downing Street – over 120 fines. So what we need now is the full report, all of the evidence. It’s the least the public is entitled to from this Government.”

Liberal Democrats tabled a motion demanding the publication of the minutes of the meeting. The party’s chief whip Wendy Chamberlain said: “The public would be rightly angry if it turns out Boris Johnson put pressure on Sue Gray to water down her report into illegal Downing Street parties.

“We deserve to know whether this meeting really was an attempt to turn the report into a Downing Street stitch-up.”

The full Gray report into 16 lockdown-breaching events in Downing Street and Whitehall is expected to be published within days, following the completion of a separate police inquiry last week, with 126 fines handed out.

There is tension over the civil servant’s plan to publish names of as many as 30 of those involved. Neither Ms Gray’s team nor Downing Street would confirm today whether any of them had taken advantage of the opportunity to raise objections over the weekend to the way in which their behaviour is charactised in the report.

In a TV interview this morning, Treasury minister Simon Clarke said that he understood the Whitehall mandarin “instigated” the meeting with the PM.

But just hours later, the PM’s spokesperson said that iin fact it was a No 10 official - reported to be permanent secretary Samantha Jones - who “suggested it might be helpful” for Ms Gray to speak with Mr Johnson.

“This was not a request of the prime minister, it wasn’t framed in that way,” said the spokesperson. “It was suggested it may be helpful to have that meeting.

“Obviously Sue Gray is independent. It’s up to her whether she proceeds with any meetings with regards to her investigation.”

Appearing on Sky News, Mr Clarke said he condemned briefing against Ms Gray, saying: “By repute she’s one of the most fiercely independent and professional civil servants in the whole of government. I don’t think there’s any politics”.

Speaking to broadcasters on Monday, Mr Johnson said he would “not give any running commentary” on the report until its published when quizzed on what was discussed at the “secret meeting”.

“To be frank, the moment is not very far enough, it can’t be long now before I’ll be able to say something,” he said.

Asked whether he initiated the meeting with Ms Gray, he replied: “I’m not giving any running commentary on the process in any way until the independent report is produced. That is reasonable”.

No 10 said that minutes of the meeting were taken, but would not be published.

Asked if the meetings between the pair could create the perception that Ms Gray’s report is not fully independent, the No 10 spokesperson said: “I point you to the coverage of the interim report which certainly didn’t suggest a lack of independence.

“And I think it is then for the public to judge following the conclusion and publication of the report itself.”

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