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The senior civil servant’s team are furious about a No 10 claim that she initiated the get-together and that it focused on whether some of around 300 photos of the lockdown parties should be included in her report.
A spokesperson for the Gray inquiry rejected both suggestions and denied that the meeting was for the report’s author “to clarify her intentions” prior to its publication, once the police investigation was concluded.
The extraordinary briefing war will increase pressure on Downing Street to explain why the meeting was held at all in relation to an inquiry it has described as “completely independent”.
In a partial climbdown, No 10 later appeared to accept that the meeting was instigated by an aide to Mr Johnson - and not by the inquiry head.
The prime minister is among as many as 30 people who have been told by Ms Gray that the report is likely to name them and given a deadline of Sunday evening to lodge any objections.
Publication is expected on Tuesday or Wednesday next week, after the Metropolitan Police announced on Thursday that it had concluded its investigation with a total of 126 fines having been issued to 83 people.
No 10 has suggested that the meeting – which took place around a month ago – discussed whether the photos handed over to the Metropolitan Police should be included in Ms Gray’s report.
This suggestion was rejected by those working for Ms Gray, who were astonished that Downing Street had sought to give the impression that Ms Gray had initiated the discussion, The Independent understands.
Mr Johnson has said he wants as much information to be disclosed as possible, but No 10 has said that “data protection” requirements might require some to be held back.
The issue of releasing the photos is said to be a “live question”, but regardless of the outcome, access to the images is likely to be demanded by those working on the Commons inquiry into whether the prime minister lied to MPs.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said: “Boris Johnson must urgently explain why he held a secret meeting with Sue Gray to discuss her report, despite claiming her investigation was completely independent.
“Public confidence in the process is already depleted, and people deserve to know the truth. The Sue Gray report must be published in full and with all accompanying evidence.”
Christine Jardine, a Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesperson, said: “Any whiff of a stitch-up would make an absolute mockery of the report. This meeting must be explained.”
A No 10 spokesperson said: “The PM did not request the meeting and hasn’t tried to influence the outcome in any way. It’s right for Sue to decide, and it’s all done independently.”
However, the phrasing of the statement left open a suggestion that the meeting was requested by a Downing Street official, if not by the prime minister himself.
Although Downing Street calls the inquiry “independent”, in reality it is an internal process, carried out by a person employed by the government.
The pressure on Mr Johnson has eased, after he escaped further fines for the No 10 parties on top of the one handed down for his cabinet room birthday celebration, in June 2020.
However, the full Gray report could still lift the lid further on what her interim report called the “failures of leadership and judgement”, by revealing the communications leading up to the lockdown-busting events.
The prime minister then faces an inquiry by the Commons’ privileges committee to determine whether he lied to parliament when claimed that no laws had been broken in Downing Street.
Under the ministerial code, any minister who knowingly misleads the House of Commons is expected to resign.