Sue Gray would not have published her investigation into lockdown parties if she was not comfortable, according to a Cabinet minister amid claims her report was edited by the Prime Minister’s chief of staff.
According to The Sunday Times, the senior civil servant was lobbied to remove names from the final 37-page document and had edits made before its release on Wednesday.
The newspaper said “tweaks” were made on the eve of publication by Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Steve Barclay, who is also chief of staff in No 10, in relation to the so-called “Abba party” held in the Prime Minister’s flat on November 13 2020.
I’m confident that Sue Gray had the freedom to write the report that she was comfortable to write and publish
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis
But Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said he did not “recognise” the reports and argued that it would have been fruitless for Downing Street to seek to influence her findings.
Mr Lewis, asked on Sky News’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme whether he could vouch that pressure was not placed on Ms Gray, said: “I’m absolutely confident that’s the case.
“Anybody who has worked in No 10 knows Sue Gray well enough that that kind of thing wouldn’t work.
“And I’m confident, particularly now that No 10 have outrightly made the point and denied that this happened, that Sue Gray had the freedom to write the report that she was comfortable to write and publish.”
Ms Gray’s report detailed raucous boozy leaving-dos held in Downing Street and Whitehall, with Mr Johnson joining in the drinking and giving speeches while the rest of the country was forbidden from seeing sick and dying loved ones during the coronavirus pandemic.
In relation to the gathering in the flat that Mr Johnson shares with his wife Carrie, it is alleged that an earlier draft of Ms Gray’s report referred to music being played and stated at what time the gathering ended, but that the information was redacted.
No 10 and the Cabinet Office have denied any edits were made by Mr Barclay, however.
In her report, Ms Gray found that the Prime Minister – who is facing growing calls from Conservative MPs to resign over his handling of the so-called partygate affair – did attend a November gathering in his flat along with five special advisers, with “food and alcohol available”.
Mrs Johnson was reportedly at the November event but was not named by Ms Gray in relation to the flat gathering.
The civil servant explained in her findings that she halted her work, having only collected “limited” information, when the Metropolitan Police began their investigation and opted against resuming her inquiries once Scotland Yard concluded their probe.
There was no mention in her report of The Winner Takes It All and other Abba songs reportedly heard blaring from the Downing Street residence after the departure of Dominic Cummings, who was formerly the PM’s chief adviser, was announced amid a bitter power struggle.
The Northern Ireland Secretary pointed to No 10’s denials about the allegations of interference in the final document released by the Cabinet Office official when questioned by broadcasters on Sunday.
He said the police had looked into the November gathering in the Johnsons’ Downing Street home and “didn’t see anything there that required anybody to be fined” – unlike the Prime Minister’s surprise birthday bash in June 2020 for which he, his wife and Chancellor Rishi Sunak were slapped with £50 fixed-penalty notices.
Rival MPs, however, have called for “full transparency” over reports that Ms Gray’s conclusions were doctored.
The Liberal Democrats said all correspondence between No 10 and Ms Gray should be released and be reviewed by the Commons Privileges Committee as part of its investigation into whether Mr Johnson misled Parliament with his reassurances Covid rules were followed in Downing Street.
Lib Dem deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “Brandon Lewis’s half-hearted denial that Downing Street tried to water down the Sue Gray report simply isn’t good enough.
“The only way to get to the truth is to make public any correspondence between Downing Street and Sue Gray over her report.”
The Cabinet Office confirmed those criticised in the report were approached before its release but denied that the published details were anything other than the work of Ms Gray.
A department spokesman said: “The report was impartially conducted and its contents represent the findings and conclusions of the investigation team alone.
“As with all such investigation reports, the process of obtaining formal representations from those perceived to be criticised prior to publication took place.
“This is an appropriate and usual process in such matters.”
It comes as the number of Tory MPs to have publicly declared they have submitted letters of no confidence in the Prime Minister has continued to tick upwards.
Former health minister Steve Brine and Anne Marie Morris became the latest to announce they have called for a vote on the future of Mr Johnson’s premiership, joining at least 20 of their colleagues in doing so.
Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tories, will be obliged to order a confidence vote if he receives 54 letters demanding one.
Mr Lewis said he thought the Prime Minister would survive a confidence test, which he argued was not in the country or the party’s interest.
He also argued that Mr Johnson’s position as leader would not be in jeopardy if the Tories lost the Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton by-elections next month.
Asked about YouGov modelling suggesting the Tories would lose all but three of 88 so-called “battleground” seats, including many of the 2019 Red Wall gains, if an election was held on the current polling numbers, the former Tory chairman said there was “not a general election in the next few months” to consider.
“It could well be a fair way away,” he added.
“The work we do as parliamentarians, as campaigners can make a very big difference, and I still think we will win the next general election.”