Boris Johnson’s fate now lies in the hands not of his MPs or the nation’s voters but a little-known civil servant conducting an inquiry behind closed doors into Downing Street parties.
As he made his apology in the House of Commons on Wednesday 12 January for attending a drinks event in the No 10 garden during lockdown, the prime minister pleaded with MPs to suspend judgement on his actions until the release of Sue Gray’s report.
The tactic bought the PM time but may prove a double-edged sword in raising expectations that he will comply with any recommendations the Whitehall mandarin makes. Asked whether he would resign if Ms Gray found against him, Johnson himself told the Commons he would “respond as appropriate” to her findings.
The same strategy has since been deployed again after The Daily Telegraph reported allegations of two more Downing Street parties late on Thursday, events that are said to have taken place on 16 April 2021, the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral and a moment when the nation was again under strict restrictions because of the pandemic.
Both gatherings are said to have been leaving parties for staff working in the prime minister’s inner team. One was reportedly held for James Slack, Mr Johnson’s then-director of communications, and the other for his personal photographer.
Witnesses said that “excessive alcohol” was drunk, attendees danced to music DJ’d by a special adviser beyond midnight and, at one point, a staffer was sent out to the local branch of Co-op to fill a suitcase with bottles of wine.
Mr Slack has since apologised “unreservedly” for the episode and again referred the matter to Ms Gray’s inquiry.
Keeping the story going and complicating matters still further for the civil servant are fresh reports that have since emerged alleging that Carrie Johnson, the prime minister’s wife, attended a friend’s rule-breaking engagement celebration in September 2020, prompting her to apologise for a “lapse in judgement”, and that the prime minister gave an address at another leaving do in December 2020, this time for defence adviser Captain Steve Higham.
The terms of reference of Ms Gray’s probe, as set out by the Cabinet Office, state that its primary purpose is “to establish swiftly a general understanding of the nature of the gatherings, including attendance, the setting and the purpose, with reference to adherence to the guidance in place at the time”.
She is not required to make recommendations for action, but her remit makes clear that she may pass judgement on whether “individual disciplinary action is warranted”.
However, there is widespread doubt at Westminster that Ms Gray will see it as her role, as a politically neutral and unelected civil servant, to reach a finding so unequivocal that it would require the removal of a prime minister.
Previous reports by government officials, no matter how damning, have tended to be couched in diplomatic terms which allow elected politicians to make the final judgement on whether one of their colleagues has unforgivably overstepped the mark.
Sir David Normington, a former Whitehall permanent secretary, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “She will be very aware that she has the reputation and possibly the careers of senior civil servants and possibly of the prime minister in her hands, and that is a very difficult position to be in, however fair and fearless and rigorous you are.”
No date has yet been set for the completion of Ms Gray’s investigation, with Downing Street saying only that she will continue until her inquiries are concluded.
“Sue Gray is acting independently, she is leading this piece of work. Under the terms of reference she is able to speak to who she wishes and investigate as she sees fit to ascertain the facts,” Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson told reporters.
Expectations are high that the report will go first to Mr Johnson, who has pledged to publish it. However, its expected completion date has already been delayed several times as new allegations about parties continue to come to light and require additional investigation.
Mr Johnson has said he will make a statement to the House of Commons when he receives the report at what will be a moment of maximum peril for the prime minister.
While he is thought highly unlikely to resign, no matter how critical Ms Gray’s findings might be, Tory MPs have made clear they are ready to submit letters of no confidence to the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee if they feel his position is no longer tenable. Committee chair Sir Graham Brady must call a vote of no confidence in Mr Johnson as Tory leader if he receives letters from 15 per cent of MPs - some 54 Conservatives.
Downing Street will also be on resignation-watch at the time of the report’s publication, as any Cabinet minister contemplating a leadership bid could use the report as an opportunity to distance him- or herself from Mr Johnson and to signal disapproval of his behaviour in office.
The decision on what action should be taken in response to the report, in terms of disciplinary measures or changes to Downing Street procedures, will be for Mr Johnson to take. His independent adviser on ethics, Lord Geidt, could only get involved at the prime minister’s request.
But if Mr Johnson chooses to overrule or ignore elements of the report, he risks provoking Ms Gray into resigning, as his former ethics adviser Sir Alex Allan did when the PM reversed the findings of his report into bullying by Priti Patel.
Ms Gray was called in to helm the partygate inquiry on 18 December, after cabinet secretary Simon Case was forced to step down after it emerged that he had hosted a lockdown drinks event in his private office the previous year.
Mr Case had initially been asked to look into reports of a single Christmas party in 2020 and was expected to conclude his inquiry before Parliament rose for its winter break, but the probe was swiftly expanded as new allegations emerged about a running series of Covid breaches.
The second permanent secretary in the Cabinet Office is leading a small team with powers to interview officials, ministers and political appointees at Downing Street and other government departments.
She is understood to have spoken to the PM, his estranged former adviser Dominic Cummings and Metropolitan Police officers tasked with guarding No 10 and to have obtained swipecard security records detailing precisely which staff members were in the building at which time, potentially definitive data on attendees.
Downing Street says it “does not recognise” claims from No 10 insiders - revealed by The Independent - that they were told last month to “clean” their phones of anything that appeared to point to a party taking place.
Ms Gray is a former director general of propriety and ethics at the Cabinet Office, and has been described as “the most powerful person you’ve never heard of”.
In 2017, she led an inquiry that forced the resignation of de facto deputy prime minister Damian Green over claims that pornography was found on his computer.
She also spearheaded the so-called “plebgate” inquiry into claims that then-chief whip Andrew Mitchell had insulted police officers on Downing Street.
Some critics have suggested Ms Gray has been influential in blocking freedom of information requests, with former BBC Newsnight journalist Chris Cook reporting in 2015 that she was “notorious for her determination not to leave a document trail” and had assisted departments to “fight disclosures”.
Mr Johnson’s own future may depend on whether she is able herself to find a document trail pointing to his toleration or encouragement of Covid rule-breaking by staff at No 10.
Ms Gray has worked in the civil service since the late 1970s, apart from a career break in the late 1980s when she ran a pub in Newry, Northern Ireland, with her husband Bill Conlon, reportedly a country singer from County Down.