Boris Johnson faces one of the most perilous moments of his premiership after Sue Gray, previously a little-known civil servant, delivered her report into a series of parties at Downing Street that took place while England was in lockdown.
The Whitehall mandarin’s 12-page “update” on the “Partygate” scandal blasted “failures of leadership and judgement” in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, describing the behaviour of some personnel as “difficult to justify”.
In a scathing comment on the culture at No 10 under Mr Johnson’s leadership, the senior administrator wrote: “Some of the gatherings in question represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time.”
Her report also revealed that Mr Johnson’s birthday celebration is among a dozen gatherings being investigated by the Metropolitan Police, as is an alleged party in the prime minister’s private flat.
Addressing the House of Commons on Monday afternoon, the PM said he “accepts Sue Gray’s general findings in full” and “above all her recommendation that we must learn from these events and act now”.
He said he was “sorry for the things we simply didn’t get right and also sorry for the way that this matter has been handled”.
“I get it, and I will fix it,” he added. “I want to say to the people of this country I know what the issue is. It is whether this government can be trusted to deliver, and I say ‘yes we can be trusted to deliver’.”
When he made his original apology in the House of Commons on Wednesday 12 January for attending a drinks event in the No 10 garden during lockdown, the prime minister pleaded with MPs to suspend judgement on his actions until the release of Ms Gray’s findings.
The tactic bought the PM time but could yet prove a double-edged sword in raising expectations that he will accept her version of events, particularly given that there are loud calls for the full version of her report to be released once Scotland Yard’s inquiry is concluded.
Asked whether he would resign if Ms Gray found against him, Mr Johnson himself told the Commons he would “respond as appropriate” to her findings.
The same strategy has since been deployed again and again by the PM’s defenders as more and more details emerged in the press about the parties, spreading further public anger over the apparent rule-breaking while citizens made huge personal sacrifice to keep each other safe.
The terms of reference of Ms Gray’s probe as originally set out by the Cabinet Office – prior to the Met announcing its own investigation and prompting a delay to her own inquiry as sensitive details had to be censored – stated that its primary purpose was “to establish swiftly a general understanding of the nature of the gatherings, including attendance, the setting and the purpose, with reference to adherence to the guidance in place at the time”.
She was not required to make recommendations for action but her remit made clear that she could pass judgement on whether “individual disciplinary action is warranted”.
However, there was always widespread doubt at Westminster that Ms Gray would see it as her role, as a politically neutral and unelected civil servant, to reach a finding so unequivocal that it would require the removal of a prime minister.
Previous reports by government officials, no matter how damning, have tended to be couched in diplomatic terms which allow elected politicians to make the final judgement on whether one of their colleagues has unforgivably overstepped the mark.
Sir David Normington, a former Whitehall permanent secretary, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme of the pressures on Ms Gray: “She will be very aware that she has the reputation and possibly the careers of senior civil servants and possibly of the prime minister in her hands, and that is a very difficult position to be in, however fair and fearless and rigorous you are.”
Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson meanwhile moved to reassure reporters during the evidence-gathering phase that: “Sue Gray is acting independently, she is leading this piece of work. Under the terms of reference she is able to speak to who she wishes and investigate as she sees fit to ascertain the facts.”
While the PM appears unlikely to resign at this moment in response to what proved to be rather measured criticism from Ms Gray in her update, Tory MPs have made clear they are ready to submit letters of no confidence to the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee if they feel his position is no longer tenable.
Committee chair Sir Graham Brady must call a vote of no confidence in Mr Johnson as Tory leader if he receives letters from 15 per cent of MPs - some 54 Conservatives.
Downing Street will also be on resignation-watch for the time being, as any Cabinet minister contemplating a leadership bid could use the report as an opportunity to distance him- or herself from Mr Johnson and to signal disapproval of his behaviour in office.
The decision on what action should be taken in response to the report, in terms of disciplinary measures or changes to Downing Street procedures, are for Mr Johnson to take. His independent adviser on ethics, Lord Geidt, could only get involved at the prime minister’s request.
But if the PM chooses to overrule, ignore or suppress aspects of the report, he risks provoking Ms Gray into resigning, as his former ethics adviser Sir Alex Allan did when the PM reversed the findings of his report into bullying by Priti Patel.
Ms Gray was called in to helm the “Partygate” inquiry on 18 December, after cabinet secretary Simon Case was forced to step down after it emerged that he had hosted a lockdown drinks event in his private office the previous year.
Mr Case had initially been asked to look into reports of a single Christmas party in 2020 and was expected to conclude his inquiry before Parliament rose for its winter break, but the probe was swiftly expanded as new allegations emerged about a running series of Covid breaches.
The second permanent secretary in the Cabinet Office is leading a small team with powers to interview officials, ministers and political appointees at Downing Street and other government departments.
She is understood to have spoken to the PM, his estranged former adviser Dominic Cummings and Met officers tasked with guarding No 10 and to have obtained swipecard security records detailing precisely which staff members were in the building at which time, potentially definitive data on attendees.
Downing Street says it “does not recognise” claims from No 10 insiders - revealed by The Independent - that they were told last month to “clean” their phones of anything that appeared to point to a party taking place.
Ms Gray is a former director general of propriety and ethics at the Cabinet Office, and has been described as “the most powerful person you’ve never heard of”.
In 2017, she led an inquiry that forced the resignation of de facto deputy prime minister Damian Green over claims that pornography was found on his computer.
She also spearheaded the so-called “plebgate” inquiry into claims that then-chief whip Andrew Mitchell had insulted police officers on Downing Street.
Some critics have suggested Ms Gray has been influential in blocking freedom of information requests, with former BBC Newsnight journalist Chris Cook reporting in 2015 that she was “notorious for her determination not to leave a document trail” and had assisted departments to “fight disclosures”.
Sue Gray has worked in the civil service since the late 1970s, apart from a career break in the late 1980s when she ran a pub in Newry, Northern Ireland, with her husband Bill Conlon, reportedly a country singer from County Down.
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