Sue Gray has given Boris Johnson’s critics enough ammunition to move against him

The prime minister, as well as senior civil servants, must take the rap for a drinking and party culture in Downing Street

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 25 May 2022 18:13
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<p>The Gray report will probably result in more Tory backbenchers demanding a vote of confidence in Johnson</p>

The Gray report will probably result in more Tory backbenchers demanding a vote of confidence in Johnson

In her long-awaited report on Partygate today, Sue Gray has given Boris Johnson’s critics enough ammunition to move against him. The senior civil servant concluded: “The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture.”

In other words, Johnson as well as senior civil servants must take the rap for a drinking and party culture in Downing Street and for the “many” events which Gray said “should not have been allowed to happen” because they broke the government’s Covid laws.

Her 37-page report is typically forensic, matching up the detailed preparations for events and what happened at them (the last person leaving No 10 at 04:20 or 03:13, for example). It could have been worse for Johnson; his friends will argue there is no smoking gun telling us something new about his involvement and the photos of parties Gray published were not damaging.

Nor, as Johnson critics had hoped, is there evidence showing that he was personally warned in advance that planned gatherings should not go ahead. But there is evidence that senior civil servants ignored warnings about how parties might look and Johnson’s former principal private secretary Martin Reynolds noted after an event in the garden that “we seem to have got away with” it.

Gray rightly concluded: “Many will be dismayed that behaviour of this kind took place on this scale at the heart of government. The public have a right to expect the very highest standards of behaviour in such places and clearly what happened fell well short of this.” She made a plea for the more junior civil servants not to be disciplined because they “believed that their involvement in some of these events was permitted given the attendance of senior leaders.”

Gray is “pleased” with the changes Johnson started to introduce in No 10 after her interim report in January. This is helpful to him. As he told the Commons this afternoon: “I commissioned this report to set the record straight and allow us all to move on. I accept full responsibility for my failings. I am humbled by the whole experience. We have learned our lesson.”

Yet Johnson’s version of “responsibility” is hardly “full.” Whatever Gray had reported, he would remain superglued to No 10. Not even the new police powers for protestors in Priti Patel’s Public Order Bill would prise him out. The only people who can do that are Conservative MPs, who should now ensure he takes ultimate responsibility for the failings Gray has outlined.

But will they? The Gray report will probably result in more Tory backbenchers demanding a vote of confidence in Johnson as party leader. Some opponents even think they will cross the threshold of 54 names. They argue, rightly in my view: “If not now, when?”

Yet other Tories will hold back, again. There is always a reason to delay an unpalatable act like regicide. Tories have already waited to see whether Johnson was fined; for the local election results; for the close of the Metropolitan Police investigation; and for Gray’s final report. The problem is that, for the faint-hearted, there is always something else to wait for: some Tories now look to the by-elections on 23 June in Tiverton and Honiton and Wakefield.

After that, there will be the privileges committee inquiry into whether Johnson knowingly misled parliament about the parties, which will not report until the autumn. If the Tories refuse to grow a spine over the next few days, this inquiry could prove to be the biggest threat to his position. However, Johnson will hope the fatigue factor over Partygate will be even greater by the autumn, that the world will indeed have “moved on.”

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True, some critics are holding back from submitting a letter to Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, because they fear Johnson would win a confidence vote now. Yet the very existence of such a vote would instantly change the dynamic and encourage other Tories to turn against him; he could be hit by an avalanche.

Tory MPs, ministers included, would know that if he survived the vote, he could not be challenged again for another 12 months, which in practice would leave him pretty sure of leading the party into the next general election the Tories have pencilled in for May 2024.

Despite Gray’s critical report, we should not expect a majority of Tory MPs to act on it as a matter of conscience by removing Johnson to restore the principles of public life he has thrown in the bin, along with the detritus from the Downing Street parties.

But they might try to oust him if they think he has turned from electoral asset to liability. The red-wall Tories are the ones to watch: if they think the man who won them their seats in 2019 will lose them their seats next time, they will turn against him.

As one party grandee told me: “Our MPs will act out of one thing only – self-interest.” We can only hope they make the right decision, even if it is for the wrong reason.

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