Boris Johnson’s fate lies in hands of Sue Gray – but it is rare that civil servants dare to pull trigger

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Boris Johnson was reminded by Sir Keir Starmer during PMQs that ministers who mislead Parliament are expected to resign
Boris Johnson was reminded by Sir Keir Starmer during PMQs that ministers who mislead Parliament are expected to resign

Boris Johnson is a political gambler, and by tying his future to the findings of the official report into Downing Street parties, he has effectively bet his premiership on its outcome.

Reminded by Sir Keir Starmer that ministers who are found to have misled Parliament are expected to resign, Mr Johnson replied that they should both wait for the report and: “I will certainly respond as appropriate.”

It sounded very much like a commitment to stand down if Sue Gray, the woman chosen to investigate “partygate”, finds that he lied to MPs.

By repeatedly fending off questions about his future by asking Sir Keir and other opposition MPs to wait for Ms Gray’s verdict, the Prime Minister added to the sense that the Cabinet Office’s second permanent secretary holds his future in her hands.

But like any inveterate gambler, Mr Johnson will have studied the form book. Recent history shows that public servants given the power to end prime ministerial careers are always reluctant to pull the trigger.

Lord Butler, the former Cabinet secretary tasked with reviewing the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, made recommendations in 2004 for improving government procedures, but ultimately stopped short of calling for anyone to resign over the deeply flawed intelligence or Sir Tony Blair’s use of it in the run-up to war.

A year earlier, Lord Hutton, the former judge, had cleared the Labour government of wrongdoing over the death of the weapons inspector David Kelly, and instead it was Gavyn Davies, the BBC chairman, and Greg Dyke, its director-general, who resigned.

The Scott report into arms to Iraq in 1996, also led by a former judge, was critical of Sir John Major’s government but not fatally so (Major won what was effectively a confidence vote by 320-319).

And Sir Thomas Legg, a civil servant who had previously cleared the government of embargo breaches in the arms to Sierra Leone affair, refused to “impute fault or blame” when he was asked to investigate MPs’ expenses claims in 2009, to the relief of David Cameron and others who had made questionable claims.

Mr Johnson will be hoping Ms Gray follows this pattern, but he knows there is no guarantee.

For a start, Ms Gray, under then Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, investigated allegations in 2017 that Damian Green MP had used his parliamentary computer to access pornography, which led to his resignation as first secretary of state after he was found to have broken the ministerial code by making misleading comments.

Sue Gray is leading the official investigation into lockdown-breaking parties that occured at Downing Street - GOV.UK
Sue Gray is leading the official investigation into lockdown-breaking parties that occured at Downing Street - GOV.UK

It is precisely this charge which is now being levelled at Mr Johnson, and if Ms Gray decides the Prime Minister lied to Parliament by saying he knew nothing about the parties in No 10, it will almost certainly be the end of his premiership.

Ms Gray is tough and inscrutable

Ms Gray, 63, is very much her own woman, unlikely to bow to any pressure that might be put on her over a glass of brandy in the Civil Service Club. Having run a pub in Newry during the Troubles, she is both tough and inscrutable.

Even if the Gray report pulls its punches, however, Mr Johnson will not be out of the woods.

Regardless of whether he lied to Parliament or broke his own lockdown rules, he still has both the public and his own MPs to answer to, neither of whom will base their decisions on the sort of technicalities examined by Ms Gray.

Mr Johnson’s apology to the nation, delivered at the start of Prime Minister’s Questions, failed to placate his critics, who still believe his time is nearly up.

Ms Gray is not working to a deadline; she could deliver her findings within days, but only she knows whether it might take longer. In the meantime, the biggest danger for Boris Johnson is that his own MPs trigger a confidence vote by demanding one in letters to Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers.

With such a mutinous mood gripping the Tory party, Ms Gray could yet be spared the burden of deciding Mr Johnson’s future.

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