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(Photo: LEON NEAL via Getty Images)
The Sue Gray report has finally been published. So what just happened? And what now?
It’s six months since the Daily Mirror first broke the partygate scandal. On December 1, 2021, the paper triggered a series of events that could still very well lead to Boris Johnson having to resign as prime minister.
The Gray report was delivered to Downing Street at 10am on Wednesday. According to No.10, this is the first time the PM got sight of it. Although one of his officials, charged with staff welfare, was given an early glimpse.
It was published online at 11am. While there was no smoking gun or huge new revelations – most had already been uncovered by the media – the details, written in Gray’s cold civil service style, were striking.
During the lockdown busting gatherings, someone was sick from excessive drinking. A karaoke machine was wheeled in. The parties went on until 4am. Red wine was spilled up the walls. Social distancing “did not happen”.
A photo of newspapers the day after Sue Gray's report was published. (Photo: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Lee Cain, the No.10 communications director in May 2020, in one of the most understated whatsapp messages in Westminster history, warned a colleague that holding a boozy garden party might be “somewhat of a comms risk”.
But Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s now departed principal private secretary, hoped “we seem to have got away with” it. They did not.
Fresh outrage was also caused by evidence that Downing Street cleaners, who had to deal with the mess from parties, and security guards were treated with a “lack of respect” by No.10 staff. “This was unacceptable,” Gray concluded.
Johnson used a Commons statement to apologise. “I am humbled by what has happened,” he told MPs. A sense of shame that might have been more effective if he had not gleefully branded Keir Starmer “Sir Beer Korma” a few minutes later.
The prime minister then held a press conference to say sorry to the country. “I renew my wholehearted apology for the gathering in the Cabinet Room on the 19 June 2020 – my birthday for which I received a fixed penalty notice,” he said. But he defended having raised a glass of wine at Cain’s leaving do. Giving a speech in person to say goodbye to a departing colleague, while the public was banned from saying goodbye to dying relatives, was his “duty”, he said. It was work. And therefore permitted under the rules.
Having faced reporters, Johnson then crossed the road to parliament to face Tory MPs. After all his fate ultimately lies with them. He apologised again. But also is said to have rejected the suggestion alcohol be completely banned in No.10 on the basis Winston Churchill drank a lot and won WWII.
Throughout the partygate scandal, Johnson has repeatedly asked everyone to “move on” to issues that, he says, the public care about more. On Thursday, coincidentally the day after the Gray report dropped, Rishi Sunak announced a huge £21bn package of financial support for people struggling with surging energy and food prices.
The chancellor announced a £400 discount on energy bills for every household in the country. There will also be a one-off £650 payment to low-income households on benefits. Pensioners will also receive a £300 payment in November/December.
In a perhaps inevitable but still striking U-turn, it will be paid for, in part, by a windfall tax on oil and gas firms. A policy long pushed for by Labour and repeatedly voted against by Tory MPs and rejected by cabinet ministers. “What is it about the Sue Gray report that first attracted him to a U-turn this week?,” Starmer asked Johnson in the Commons.
A handful of Tory MPs have called for the prime minister to resign following the Gray report. And one parliamentary private secretary, the lowest rung on the ministerial ladder, quit the government over the “toxic” culture in No.10. But so far the public demands from Tory MPs that Johnson stand down are a drip, drip not a gush. Although there are rumours in Westminster that rather than being spontaneous, a leading critic of Johnson has their hand on the tap.
Boris Johnson departs 10 Downing Street, London, the day after the publication of the Sue Gray report. (Photo: Dominic Lipinski via PA Wire/PA Images)
The PM survived the week but is not in the clear yet. He still has two big problems looming.
The first is the the Commons privileges committee, which is set to launch an investigation into whether the prime minister misled parliament. On multiple occasions, in parliament, Johnson denied knowledge of any rule breaking in No.10.
The ministerial code states that “ministers who knowingly mislead parliament will be expected to offer their resignation”. The key word there is “knowingly” – Johnson’s defence has been that he did not think anything he did broke the laws that he had imposed on the country. But that could be a difficult line to sustain.
Even if Johnson is found guilty by the committee but manages to technically dodge the previously convention that he should resign, Tory MPs might decide they have had enough. It takes 54 of them to demand a no confidence vote in his leadership before a contest can be triggered. The number who have submitted letters is secret. Only Graham Brady, the chairman of the 19922 committee of backbench Tories, knows the true number.
The other crunch point for Johnson is June 23, which will see two by-elections on the same day. Wakefield in Yorkshire and Tiverton and Honiton in Devon. Both are currently held by the Conservatives. But the party risks losing Wakefield to Labour and Tiverton to the Lib Dems
A loss in Wakefield would not be ideal, given its position in the red wall, but it is probably expected. However a losing Tiverton, which has a Tory majority of 24,239, to the Lib Dems, could scare a critical mass of Conservative MPs into acting against the PM.
Rumbling on in the background is Durham Police’s investigation into beergate. Starmer has been accused by the Conservatives of himself breaking lockdown rules by drinking a beer and eating a takeaway curry with staff in April 2021. The Labour leader, dubbed “Mr Rules” by Lisa Nandy, has insisted he broke no rules. But he has promised to resign if he is issued a fine by police.
It remains a, perhaps unlikely, possibility that the political storm that began with revelations that lockdown rules were broken in Downing Street could claim the career of a party leader. But not the one in No.10.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.