Westminster remains on tenterhooks as MPs and journalists await the hotly anticipated and delayed Sue Gray report into drinks gatherings and alleged Covid rule breaking in Downing Street and Whitehall.
Prime minister Boris Johnson’s future hangs in the balance over the ‘partygate’ scandal, with many Tories saying they are awaiting for the publication of Ms Gray’s investigation before deciding whether or not to send in no confidence letters to the party’s 1992 Committee.
Conservative Party rules mean that 54 letters are required before a formal leadership challenge can be triggered.
As of lunchtime on Wednesday, Ms Gray’s report had not been put into the public domain.
Downing Street has said Mr Johnson wants to publish it – in full or in part – “as soon as possible”, meaning its potentially explosive findings may be known in the next few hours.
However, it is not clear how much of the report will actually be published. On 17 January a spokesperson for the PM said “we have committed to publishing it in the House in full”.
But Mr Johnson would not commit to this himself at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, saying only he would do “exactly what he said”, apparently referring to a separate PMQs session on 8 December when he said: “I will place a copy of the report in the Library of the House of Commons”
Since the latest PMQs session on 26 January, a spokesperson has said the PM had still not been given the report, further increasing the chances it will be delayed until tomorrow at least.
Labour is demanding that it is is published in full along with all the accompanying evidence.
In an urgent question to the House of Commons on Tuesday, the party’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said: “So I ask the Paymaster General these questions. Given this morning’s announcement, when will the Sue Gray report finally be published?
“Can the Paymaster General assure the House that the Sue Gray report will be published in full, not just as a summary, and will the accompanying evidence be provided? Can he clarify for the House what Sue Gray and her team will be doing while the police conduct their investigation? “
She added: “Can he tell the House whether the decision to delay the publication of the Sue Gray report was made by the Metropolitan police or the Government?”
The timings of the investigation were thrown into doubt and chaos yesterday after the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick announced that the force was launching its own inquiry into possible criminal offences by government staff.
Reports say the Met Police has not raised any objections to the Cabinet Office-led inquiry being released before its own investigation has concluded.
Ms Gray’s probe reportedly obtained an email last week showing that an aide to the PM was warned that the now infamous garden bash of 20 May 2020 was against the rules.
The email, and reports of at least 12 other alleged rule-breaking parties, are being investigated internally by a senior civil servant Ms Gray, who has been tasked with establishing the facts of what happened at each.
The Daily Telegraph reported on Monday that police officers guarding Downing Street had given "extremely damaging" statements to Ms Gray's inquiry, raising fresh questions about why the Met did not investigate alleged lockdown breaches at the time.
Over the weekend, The Sunday Times said the scope of the probe had been widened to include alleged parties in the flat the PM shares with wife Carrie and their two children above No 11 Downing Street.
The Independent, meanwhile, revealed claims by officials working in No 10 that they held back information from Ms Gray’s investigation into the partygate scandal due to a “culture of fear” surrounding the probe.
Mr Johnson appointed Ms Gray to look into the reports on 8 December after Simon Case, the cabinet secretary and the UK's most senior mandarin, recused himself from the investigation as it emerged a gathering had taken place in his office.
Ms Gray, the second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities - who previously worked in Cabinet Office's propriety and ethics team - has a fearsome reputation for pulling no punches when it comes to wrongdoing.
Her probe does not have the same powers as a judge-led or public inquiry. Some believe the conclusions in the former pub landlord's report could be written in such a way as to suggest to Mr Johnson, who is fighting for his political life over the ‘partygate’ scandal, that it is last orders and he should resign.
According to the Institute for Government thinktank, it is unlikely she will explicitly call for Mr Johnson to quit or rule on whether or not he breached the ministerial code in his responses to the party reports in the House of Commons.
When the terms of reference for the investigation were set (by the PM) there was no concrete date for its publication and it has apparently been delayed on at least one occasion after fresh allegations emerged and the scope of the investigation widened.
Several news outlets, including The Daily Telegraph, reported that Ms Gray had been planning to publish the findings of her investigation last week.
Subsequent reports said it could be released this week, although there are now creeping doubts about this. The Cabinet Office would not be drawn on questions about the date of publication when approached for comment by The Independent.
Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, refused to confirm to the BBC's Sunday Morning Show that the report would be published in full.
“It...will be for the prime minister to decide. But … there will be full transparency,” he said. “He has said he will come back to the Commons and make a statement, so there will be full scrutiny.”
Allies of the PM, including Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, have repeatedly called for patience from colleagues calling for the PM to resign over the affair, saying MPs should give the PM space until Ms Gray’s report is published.
Mr Johnson has himself repeatedly referred to the investigation when being asked to answer further questions on partygate.
Government whips were earlier in the month engaged in frantic efforts to delay a potential no confidence vote in Mr Johnson as back bench Tory MPs became increasingly restless over his handling of the affair.
The PM appeared on Sky News last Tuesday to defend himself against claims by Dominic Cummings, his former chief aide, that he was in fact made aware that the 20 May 2020 party broke the rules. Mr Cummings also accused the PM of lying to parliament, which would be a breach of the ministerial code and therefore usually a resigning matter, which he denies.
"I'm saying categorically that nobody told me, nobody said this was something that was against the rules, doing something that wasn't a work event because frankly, I can't imagine why it would have gone ahead, or it would have been allowed to go ahead if it was against the rules," Mr Johnson said in his response.
But the PM was then criticised for refusing to accept responsibility for the rules he had himself set and the response reportedly triggered a fresh wave of no confidence letters going in to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the powerful 1922 Committee.
Mr Cummings was expected to give evidence to the inquiry on Monday but said he had submitted written evidence instead.
Some rebel MPs claimed that the no confidence vote threshold of 54 letters would be reached by the end of Wednesday last week, but this never transpired.
Allies of the PM subsequently briefed news outlets that the defection of Christian Wakeford to the Labour party earlier in the day had "calmed" the party and made rebels "think twice" about submitting letters.
Infighting over Mr Johnson's future broke out into the open in the Commons last Thursday as MPs plotting to topple the PM accused whips of “blackmailing” them to vote with the government.
William Wragg, a senior Tory MP, chair of the public administration committee — and one of those calling for Johnson to resign over the partygate scandal — was first out of the blocks to make the incendiary claims, saying that some of his colleagues had been threatened with funding cuts if they didn’t vote in a specific way.
Just a few hours later Christian Wakeford, who defected to the Labour Party and who is also calling for the PM to go, stepped forward to tell the BBC that whips had threatened to axe funding for a school in his constituency if he did not support the government on voting against free school meals.
Mr Wragg was expected to bring these allegations to the Metropolitan Police this week.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies