Who is Sue Gray, what is she investigating and should the PM be worried?

The senior civil servant is looking to establish the facts about a series of claims of lockdown-breaking in No 10 and Whitehall.

Patrick Daly
Thursday 13 January 2022 15:08
Sue Gray’s report is looking to establish the facts about allegations of coronavirus rule-breaking in No 10 and elsewhere in Government (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Sue Gray’s report is looking to establish the facts about allegations of coronavirus rule-breaking in No 10 and elsewhere in Government (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

It is the investigation Westminster and most of the media is talking about – so just what is the inquiry led by Sue Gray into possible No 10 lockdown breaches?

Here is a look at what the probe by the senior civil servant is likely to entail, when it could report and why the Prime Minister is sure to be studying its findings closely.

– What is the inquiry into?

There are a litany of allegations about rule-breaking parties held in No 10 and elsewhere in Government while tough coronavirus restrictions were in place during 2020, ranging from summer garden drinks to Christmas bashes.

Its remit will include understanding what happened on May 20 2020 during a “bring your own booze” garden drinks event for staff – held when it was forbidden for more than two people to meet outside during the first coronavirus lockdown, and that the Prime Minister has admitted he attended for about 25 minutes.

– Why is Sue Gray leading it?

The Cabinet Office second permanent secretary found herself thrust into the limelight and chosen to step in to lead the investigation after Cabinet Secretary Simon Case – her boss – recused himself following allegations that his own office held a Christmas event in December 2020.

– Has she got form for such inquiries?

Yes, in that Ms Gray, a former publican, has investigated two Cabinet ministers in the past over alleged wrongdoing.

Sue Gray, second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, who is leading an investigation into lockdown-breaking parties across Whitehall (Gov.UK/PA)

The subjects of those investigations, former first secretary of state Damian Green and former chief whip Andrew Mitchell, ended up being sacked and quitting respectively.

– Will the report make any judgments?

According to the Institute for Government (IoG), Ms Gray’s final document is “set to be a largely factual account about parties that were held in Downing Street”.

Catherine Haddon, a senior fellow at the think tank, said the report “may not assign individual blame but might refer disciplinary action to others”.

– Why does the Government think an investigation is needed?

Ministers have said it is important to answer questions around the allegations of rule-breaking in Government.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, asked why there needed to be a probe into what the Prime Minister knew regarding the parties, told the BBC: “I think it is right, where there have been questions around what was happening around that time – there are some other events there that people have talked about in the past – for people to see there is a clear and proper investigation.

“We will then have clear the details of what happened, and then we can have that conversation.”

– Should Boris Johnson be worried?

The Prime Minister has put a lot of stock in the investigation and will be anxiously awaiting its findings but it is suggested it is unlikely to pass judgment on his actions.

The IoG states that, while Ms Gray’s findings may “touch on the role of the Prime Minister”, it is not her place to “judge his behaviour”.

But Dr Haddon goes on to say that the “bare facts alone could prove deeply damaging”, including in the way the official sets them out and the language used.

Boris Johnson has apologised to MPs for allowing the May 20 2020 drinks in No 10 to continue after admitting to being in attendance (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA)

It will then be for Conservative MPs and possibly Mr Johnson’s independent ethics adviser – should the Prime Minister commission a separate probe by Lord Geidt – to decide whether he broke the Ministerial Code and misled Parliament.

Mr Johnson has previously said that he has followed coronavirus guidance and, while apologising for not stopping the May 20 gathering, has told the Commons he understood it to be a “work event”.

– Will or has Mr Johnson been interviewed?

The Prime Minister’s aides have so far declined to say whether he has given evidence to the inquiry but No 10 said Ms Gray “has access to all individuals that are required to be spoken to”, leaving the door open to a one-on-one meeting between the pair.

– Will the Prime Minister accept the findings?

Downing Street insists he will.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told reporters on Wednesday: “Yes, I think – without pre-empting the findings of the review – it has his backing and he will accept what facts she establishes.”

– When will the conclusions be published?

No 10 has said it wants the process finalised “as soon as possible” but that timings are not in its hands.

The Times reported that it is expected at the end of next week.

– Could it be delayed? 

If the police decide to investigate any allegations they consider to be a criminal offence, then Ms Gray’s own review could be “paused”, Paymaster General Michael Ellis told MPs this week.

Paymaster General Michael Ellis updated the Commons on the terms of reference for the Sue Gray inquiry (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA)

The Metropolitan Police have confirmed they are in contact with Cabinet Office officials about the inquiry.

– Is the investigation independent?

Given Ms Gray, a former director general of propriety and ethics, has worked in the Cabinet Office on-and-off for more than 20 years and is investigating fellow civil servants and ministers, it is fair to say it is not strictly independent.

Standards watchdog chairman Lord Evans has said a private sector company facing similar allegations would likely have brought in a legal firm to head up an inquiry.

But, in an appearance before MPs this week, the former MI5 chief added: “Given the personality and experience of Sue Gray, I have no doubt that she will follow the facts and come forward with her recommendations without fear or favour.”

– Who will the final report go to?

It will go to the Prime Minister and No 10 has committed to publishing it, with Mr Johnson also pledging to make a statement in the Commons.

– What are the allegations Ms Gray is likely to establish the facts about?

Below is a list of 2020 events that have either been alleged or admitted to by the Government.

The terms of reference state that Ms Gray can choose to widen her investigation should further “credible allegations” surface.

– May 15: Downing Street wine and cheese gathering in the garden

– May 20: “bring your own booze” garden party in No 10

– November 13: a leaving party for one of the PM’s senior aides

– November 13: a party in Mr and Mrs Johnson’s flat

– November 25: Treasury drinks

– November 27: A second No 10 staff leaving do

– December 10: Department for Education party

– December 14: Conservative HQ party featuring Tory London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey and staff

– December 15: Downing Street “virtual” quiz

– December 16: Department for Transport party

– December 17: Cabinet Office Christmas event

– December 18: Christmas party at Downing Street

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