Sue Gray’s inquiry into claims of lockdown-breaking parties in No 10 and across Whitehall has been thrown into disarray by Scotland Yard.
The force told the Cabinet Office team to limit publication of any potentially criminal events and behaviour, casting further uncertainty on when the report will surface and how extensive it will be.
It means the official inquiry seen as so crucial because of the long absence of a police investigation has now been hindered by police work.
– What does Sue Gray do now?
There are two realistic options. She could soon publish a redacted or watered down version that complies with the Met’s demands. Sources close to the inquiry have signalled her concerns about delivering a report shorn of key conclusions.
It could open the respected civil servant up to allegations of participating in a whitewash if she cannot go into all the details she has unearthed. But it would still allow her to discuss the potentially damning facts she has ascertained surrounding events that did not reach a criminal threshold. She could also touch on the drinking culture at the heart of Government.
Alternatively, the Whitehall inquisitor could hold off on publishing anything until after the Met returns its verdict on the saga. But this could see a days-long wait turn into weeks and potentially months.
There is a third option: to publish in full and be damned. But it is understood this is not something under consideration.
– How has the Met’s position evolved?
Scotland Yard spent two months resisting calls to investigate since the Daily Mirror first reported allegations of parties in No 10 on November 30.
All that changed on Tuesday, when Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick announced she had launched an investigation shortly before the Gray inquiry was expected to be published.
Between those two days the force argued it would not start an investigation “based on the absence of evidence and in line with our policy not to investigate retrospective breaches” of Covid laws.
The possibility of later setting officers to work was always left open, with the force saying it would consider evidence emerging from the Whitehall probe.
Thanks in part to that evidence, Dame Cressida set her officers to work.
Initially, the Met did not raise objections to the report, but the publication went on hiatus as officers and the Whitehall investigators held talks.
Then, on Friday a new statement said: “For the events the Met is investigating, we asked for minimal reference to be made in the Cabinet Office report.”
I am not a criminal lawyer so perhaps I am missing something. How would a factual civil service report about events the police is investigating "prejudice" their investigation?
— Adam Wagner (@AdamWagner1) January 28, 2022
– Why is publication being limited now?
The police statement said it only wanted to limit publication surrounding events being looked at by the Met in order to “avoid any prejudice to our investigation”.
Exactly how publication might affect the investigation was not set out, but the PA news agency understood it related to officers’ ability to effectively investigate, rather than because more serious offences were being probed, as some had suggested.
Officers were understood to be looking into possible breaches of Covid rules that may warrant fixed penalty notices.
Laws restrict the reporting of ongoing criminal inquiries after proceedings are deemed “active”, for instance, when an arrest has been made. The Met said this is not the case.
The chief concern seemed to instead centre on the possibility that publishing the Gray inquiry could hand an advantage to a suspect or witness by giving them greater time to prepare, or discuss with others, while officers lose the element of surprise.
– Why does all this matter?
Many are furious at the apparent hypocrisy of No 10 demanding the public follow strict rules to combat Covid-19 while staff risked breaking them.
But the report also has the potential to topple the Prime Minister, with some Tory MPs holding off calling for a vote of no confidence in him until after its release.
Anything that has the appearance of a cover-up involving No 10 and the Met – true or not – will also risk decaying trust in politicians and the police.