Sue Gray finds ‘failures of leadership and judgment’ in report on Downing Street parties

‘Serious failure’ in government to observe the standards expected of the British people

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Monday 31 January 2022 16:56
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Sue Gray’s heavily-abridged report into the partygate scandal has blasted “failures of leadership and judgment” in 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office.

The report considered a total of 16 separate social events at 10 Downing Street and other government departments which took place while Covid regulations imposed strict limits on gatherings anywhere in the UK.

And it revealed that the Metropolitan Police inquiry launched last week will focus on 12 events - including the ”bring your own booze” party on 20 May 2020 when Boris Johnson joined around 40 No 10 staff to drink alcohol and eat picnic food from trestle tables in the Downing Street rose garden, as well as an alleged party in the prime minister’s flat on the evening of the resignation of former aide Dominic Cummings on 13 November 2020.

The 13 November gathering may be of particular significance in determining whether Mr Johnson survives the scandal, as he has previously denied in a written response to a parliamentary question that it even took place.

In a scathing comment on the culture at No 10 under Boris Mr Johnson’s leadership, the Whitehall mandarin 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”.

The report led to renewed demands for Mr Johnson’s resignation.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said: "Everyone knows Boris Johnson broke the rules and lied to the country. It’s time Conservative MPs did their patriotic duty, listened to their constituents and stood up for decency by sacking Boris Johnson. He must go before he does our country any more harm,”

And Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “I’ve spoken to constituents, people on the street, people on trains, primary school children, care home residents, and not a single person needs Sue Gray to tell them what to think about Boris Johnson.

“He made the rules, he broke the rules, he is unfit for office.”

She said it was “the most absolute failure of any prime minister” and Mr Johnson had “failed in his number one duty as leader of our country” and should immediately resign.

The long-awaited report was published by Downing Street at 2.30pm after being delivered to Boris Johnson at 11.20am on Monday. The prime minister later apologised in a statement to the House of Commons.

After an eleventh-hour intervention by police, senior civil servant Ms Gray was required to strip the report of all but “minimal” references to alleged breaches of Covid regulations in parties and social gatherings in No 10 and Whitehall departments.

Ms Gray said that the police request had made it impossible for her to deliver a “meaningful report” on the full range of events which took place in No 10 during 2020 and 2021.

“I am extremely limited in what I can say about those events and it is not possible at present to provide a meaningful report setting out and analysing the extensive factual information I have been able to gather,” she said.

She described her 12-page report as an “update” on her inquiries, suggesting that a fuller report may be published when the police investigation is concluded.

And she said she will “ensure the secure storage and safekeeping of all the information gathered until such time as it may be required further” but will not share it with Mr Johnson or anyone else in government.

Only four events mentioned over the course of the controversy were not of interest to the police - a photograph taken on 15 May 2020 which showed Mr Johnson and wife Carrie with No 10 staff drinking in the Downing Street garden; a leaving do for aide Cleo Watson on 27 November 2020; a pre-Christmas gathering at the Department for Education on 10 December 2020; and an online Christmas quiz at No 10 on 15 December 2020.

The report did not mention Mr Johnson by name and made no direct criticism of individuals for what took place in No 10.

And Ms Gray made clear she was not in a position to pass judgement on whether any Covid breaches amounted to breaking the law, insisting that that was a matter for law enforcement agencies.

She also said that she did not regard it as appropriate, while the police inquiry is ongoing, to deliver a verdict on whether individual gatherings breached guidance and regulations.

But she found: “ At times it seems there was too little thought given to what was happening across the country in considering the appropriateness of some of these gatherings, the risks they presented to public health and how they might appear to the public.

“There were failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times.”

And Ms Gray concluded: “A number of these gatherings should not have been allowed to take place or to develop in the way that they did.

“There is significant learning to be drawn from these events which must be addressed immediately across government. This does not need to wait for the police investigations to be concluded. “

The report acknowledged that Downing Street staff were in an unusual position during Covid lockdowns, as they were permitted to attend their workplace under a special exemption.

But Ms Gray made clear that this did not provide an excuse for breaching rules, noting that the same conditions applied to “key and frontline workers across the country who were working under equally, if not more, demanding conditions, often at risk to their own health”.

She said: “It is important to remember the stringency of the public health regulations in force in England over the relevant periods and that criminal sanctions were applied to many found to be in breach of them.

“The hardship under which citizens across the country worked, lived and sadly even died while observing the government’s regulations and guidance rigorously are known only too well.”

And she said: “Against the backdrop of the pandemic, when the government was asking citizens to accept far-reaching restrictions on their lives, some of the behaviour surrounding these gatherings is difficult to justify. “

Ms Gray raised concerns about the ability of Downing Street staff to raise concerns about gatherings and breaches of social distancing rules over which they felt uneasy.

“Some staff wanted to raise concerns about behaviours they witnessed at work but at times felt unable to do so,” she said.

“No member of staff should feel unable to report or challenge poor conduct where they witness it. There should be easier ways for staff to raise such concerns informally, outside of the line management chain.”

And she appeared to suggest that too little support had been given to principal private secretary Martin Reynolds, who has been targeted for blame for organising the 20 May garden party.

“Too much responsibility and expectation is placed on the senior official whose principal function is the direct support of the prime minister,” said the report. “This should be addressed as a matter of priority.”

Ms Gray said the report looked at a series of gatherings whose “necessity for work purposes has been open to question”.

Her team interviewed more than 70 individuals with knowledge of the events - some more than once - and examined relevant documentary and digital information, including emails, WhatsApp messages, text messages, photographs and official records.

The investigators also had access to entry and exit logs for government buildings in order to build up a picture of when individuals were arriving and leaving - and to pick up mass departures late in the evening after events took place.

Ms Gray said her investigative work is now “essentially complete” - leaving open some room for her to add further information which arises during the police investigation before releasing her final verdict.

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