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- Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since 2019
Why is someone who ultimately reports to Boris Johnson investigating him? Sue Gray, looking into so-called partygate, is routinely portrayed as a bureaucratic Rottweiler, someone who’d chew Johnson’s knackers off if she found he’d been misbehaving – but is that really true? Or, rather, will the public ever believe it?
For all her undoubted personal qualities (and she is a professional), the power dynamic in such a highly charged situation surely cannot be completely discounted. It seems to me that anyone asked to see if there’s anything their boss has done that might end their boss’ career is placed in an invidious position.
It might be OK in a corporate environment, if the chief executive of an organisation was being scrutinised by a senior manager and the senior manager was going to report to the board of directors or the chair. But it doesn’t look or feel right if the senior manager is asked to present their findings to the very chief executive now at the centre of the controversy.
Yet this is precisely where Ms Gray finds herself, quite unfairly and accidentally. After Johnson’s non-apology to parliament, every minister and backbencher remaining loyal to the PM is going around saying everything now depends on her findings. No pressure, then. And she will have to present those findings to, erm, Boris Johnson – which seems bizarre. Will he be able to helpfully suggest amendments? Some softening in tone? Will she feel pressure to self-censor and be overly cautious?
Dutifully, she took on this role when the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, who’d originally been asked to look into it, had to recuse himself because of the suggestion he had (variously) been at a Downing Street party, walked past it, walked through it and/or made a speech at it. Ironically, Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s own principal private Secretary and the man who sent the 20 May party invites, was going to assist Case before he too stepped to one side. It looked, from where I was sitting, like a cosy arrangement at that point.
They looked for someone with impeccable credentials. Gray, second permanent secretary at the cabinet office and former civil service ethics boss, was chosen to “ascertain the facts and present her findings to the prime minister". Yet the most salient fact – that Boris Johnson was, on 20 May 2020, at a meeting/gathering/party that broke lockdown rules (though he maintains they were technically not broken) – has now been well and truly ascertained.
The PM was at a gathering of about 30 people for 25 minutes. It was a private place, and they were people who worked with him – but it cannot be called an essential meeting for key workers. It broke the rules. It was a nice break in the nice weather with nice food and drink for nice people. It’s just that there were about 60 million other nice people banned from doing any such nice thing.
Things have moved on considerably since the Case inquiry was launched. It came after the first revelations about parties among staffers broke, with the video of the mock press conference about “socially distanced” drinks and Allegra Stratton’s resignation.
Johnson pronounced himself “sickened”, and at that point, there was little sign of the prime minister himself attending one. It was assumed that if he had even known about such an event, let alone been there, then he would have to go immediately. There was the still video image of him at the Zoom quiz, and the picture of the Downing Street garden, and Dominic Cummings’ detailed allegations, and the leaks about yet more boozy parties. Johnson claimed innocence, with increasing desperation.
Somehow, like the frog in a pan of water gradually brought to the boil, the incremental way we’ve learned of Johnson’s colossal betrayal of trust has inured us to what we now know. In my opinion, Ms Gray’s inquiry, through no fault of her own, is redundant, because we already know what we need to about the prime minister’s role.
If there is to be an inquiry into what Boris Johnson did, my view is that it cannot be done by someone who works for him, however punctilious. That is what the initial Case investigation has morphed into, and the context now is utterly different. As is the way with carefully balanced official reports, her findings will probably contain some bits of driftwood in the form of references to uncertainties and lack of evidence that Johnson can grab hold of as he drowns.
How can Gray be expected to interrogate civil service colleagues, inspect their phones or read all their emails? What does she say when they say they deleted their WhatsApp messages? Who told them? Her inquiry is turning into a quasi-police one, but without the powers or independence. Shouldn’t we just let the Met get on with it now? They’ve said they might.
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If they still want an internal inquiry, it seems it would be much better to hand over the investigation to a formally independent figure. Lord Geidt, the independent adviser on ministerial conduct, would seem the obvious choice, but that would mean Johnson, the focus of attention, asking him to do so – which seems unlikely. But there must be other watchdogs who could provide a suitably independent figure to second, such as the parliamentary commissioner for standards Kathryn Stone, or Lord Evans, the head of the committee on public standards.
I believe Gray’s inquiry will end messily and badly, which may be alright for Johnson – more confusion and distraction. It will, however, signal a further politicisation of the civil service, and it cannot be right for her personally either. The Labour Party has already shown itself alert to Johnson’s abuse of the system. Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting, an impressively shrewd player, tweeted: “Kirsty Wark described Sue Gray as ‘independent’ on @BBCNewsnight. This is incorrect. She is a civil servant who reports to her superiors. She is in an impossible position, with an impossible task, but it is inaccurate to describe her as independent.”
Alastair Campbell has also chipped in, saying Gray is impartial but not independent – a crucial distinction. So we detect the early signs of Labour not accepting the findings of an inquiry by Gray, a senior civil servant, and the matter never being properly closed.
Politically, though, the public have plainly made their minds up about Johnson, and they don’t need Gray or anyone else to tell them what he did. He’s told us his version, and it’s damning enough anyway. If she does produce a report, it seems very likely it will be labelled a whitewash and will do her, Johnson and the government no good.
How will it be if one day, Sue Gray winds up as cabinet secretary or permanent secretary at the Treasury – completely on merit – and an incoming Labour minister says, “ah yes, the woman who saved Boris Johnson”? As Matthew Paris pointed out lately, anyone who comes into contact with Boris Johnson eventually and inevitably gets damaged. Which is really the problem.