The explosive findings of a report into parties at Downing Street are set for publication as early as Wednesday, after police launched a criminal investigation into possible breaches of Covid regulations.
With his future as prime minister hanging in the balance, Boris Johnson will mount his fightback in an address to the House of Commons within 24 hours of receiving Whitehall mandarin Sue Gray’s findings.
But Conservative critics of the PM told The Independent they expect the report to be “damning” enough to trigger the 54 letters of no confidence from MPs needed to force a vote on the his position within days.
And Sir Keir Starmer called on cabinet ministers to break ranks and make clear they can no longer tolerate Mr Johnson as leader of the country.
The dramatic announcement by Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick that her force will investigate an unspecified number of the reported No 10 parties has massively heightened the political peril facing Mr Johnson, who risks becoming the first serving PM to be interviewed as a suspect by officers.
He risks a fixed penalty fine of at least £100 – rising to £10,000 in the worse cases – if found guilty of breaking lockdown rules in one of a series of 15 alleged gatherings, ranging from cheese and wine in the No 10 garden to a celebration of his birthday in the cabinet room.
Commissioner Dick told the London Assembly that the decision was founded on the belief that those involved “knew, or ought to have known” that what they were doing was an offence and that there was “little ambiguity around the absence of any reasonable defence”.
Retrospective investigations of lockdown infringement were conducted only for “the most serious and flagrant type of breach”, she said.
Downing Street said the PM and No 10 officials will “fully cooperate” with the police inquiry, making themselves available for interview and handing over any documents, diaries or phones that are requested.
A spokesperson said Mr Johnson does not believe he broke the law.
After discussions with Ms Gray’s team on Tuesday, the Met cleared the inquiry report to be handed to the PM in full.
Although Tory whips reportedly told MPs that Ms Gray’s report will be released on Wednesday, a delay in its intended delivery on Tuesday night to the prime minister means that Thursday is a possibility for its publication.
It was earlier thought Mr Johnson could make a statement to MPs immediately after his weekly session prime minister’s questions on Wednesday lunchtime, setting the scene for a determined bid to remove him from office.
As he braced for the report’s findings, Mr Johnson spent time with more than a dozen Tory MPs individually in his office on Tuesday night to try and drum up support. Mr Johnson is reported to have said to have told colleagues: "We'll get through this."
While some details have been redacted by Ms Gray’s team to hide personal information and protect junior staff, it is understood police did not demand that any significant parts of the report should be held back from being published.
Mr Johnson has the power to decide whether to publish the report in full or to release only a brief summary of findings. But he will be intensely aware of the danger of a vicious backlash if he appears to be trying to hide anything.
As the completion of the Gray report was confirmed, new claims emerged that the senior civil servant has been handed photos of Downing Street parties which feature the prime minister.
Ms Gray had been in contact with police ever since being appointed to take over the Partygate inquiry on 18 December, after cabinet secretary Simon Case was forced to step down after admitting he had hosted his own office Christmas drinks.
Commissioner Dick took the decision to launch a police probe after receiving “outline findings” from Ms Gray in recent days.
Reports suggest that Cabinet Office insiders were aware of a likely police investigation as early as Friday, but Downing Street said Mr Johnson was not informed until Tuesday morning and did not tell ministers at the cabinet meeting which began minutes afterwards.
No 10 sparked confusion by briefing reporters that Ms Gray would have to suspend inquiries into those events covered by the police probe, and would initially be able to publish information only about those deemed not to merit criminal investigation.
The briefing sparked “complete confusion” in the Cabinet Office and prompted the Met to make clear that it had no objection to the publication of the Gray report in full.
Downing Street blamed the flawed briefing on a misunderstanding and insisted there was no intention to block or delay the release of findings which are widely expected to be highly uncomfortable for the PM. Elsewhere in Whitehall, the incident was being described as a case of “crossed wires”.
Addressing MPs shortly after Commissioner Dick’s bombshell announcement, Mr Johnson said: “I welcome the Met’s decision to conduct its own investigation because I believe this will help to give the public the clarity it needs and help to draw a line under matters.”
But in the corridors and tearooms of Westminster, there was widespread expectation that early publication of the Gray inquiry could hasten a challenge to the PM’s position.
One red wall Tory MP opposed to his leadership told The Independent: “I think the Sue Gray report should be damning enough to change minds about sending in a letter – there’s a lot of colleagues considering sending in letters.
“Whether we get to 54 letters will depend on just how damning it is.”
The MP, who remains “close” to sending in his letter of no confidence, said it was “not realistic” for colleagues to wait for the police to conclude.
“People have to make up their mind whether the PM is worth saving, and whether he is now a disaster for the party.”
One former Conservative minister – who has made up their mind that Mr Johnson must be replaced – told The Independent: “A serving prime minister investigated by the police is a national embarrassment. If the Gray report is really bad there will a deluge [of letters].”
Another ex-minister said the police probe “deepens the hole” the prime minister is currently in, rather than help him by buying more time, as well as heightening the “acute electoral dangers” for the Tory party.
Conservative backbencher Sir Robert Syms said the prime minister “really ought to consider his position”, warning of “paralysis in government” for months if Mr Johnson were to cling on to power.
“Whether Boris is guilty or innocent isn’t really the issue now, the issue is we need a functioning government,” said the MP for Poole. “Most of us want to just move on and get back to normal politics. We can’t do that with him in place.”
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross repeated his call for Mr Johnson to resign, telling the BBC that the contest stream of stories about gatherings and investigations was “very damaging” and “he should go”.
And Sir Keir Starmer said it was time for those members of the cabinet with concerns about Mr Johnson’s leadership to wield the knife.
“Trust in Boris Johnson is at an all-time low,” said the Labour leader.
“But we need to see the report in full and, frankly, some of his cabinet now need to look themselves in the mirror and ask themselves why they’re still supporting this prime minister.
“It’s time that some of those cabinet members spoke out and said we’re not tolerating this any longer.”
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