Senior civil servant Sue Gray is expected to finally publish her full report into the “Partygate” scandal over lockdown rule-breaking in Downing Street this week after the Metropolitan Police completed its own investigation into the affair.
The Met issued 126 fixed-penalty notices to 83 individuals in total over the series of parties that took place behind closed doors in Westminster while the rest of the country was asked to observe the same administration’s strict social distancing rules at the height of the pandemic, a moment in which many people were unable to visit sick or dying loved ones because of the measures in place to contain the spread of Covid-19.
The scandal first erupted in December last year, forcing the tearful resignation of the prime minister’s spokesperson Allegra Stratton after she was caught on film joking about it, and raged into January thanks to a slew of stories in the press about 12 different events packed with lurid details, most notoriously a suitcase filled with Co-op wine, with only a brief respite provided by Christmas and a fresh surge in cases sparked by the arrival of the Omicron variant.
Boris Johnson apologised to the public while repeatedly denying any wrongdoing, batting away fierce calls for his resignation from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, from bereaved families outraged at the apparent culture in the corridors of power and from his own backbenchers.
Ms Gray, a respected Whitehall mandarin, was assigned to investigate after Cabinet secretary Simon Case was forced to recuse himself, and she submitted a 12-page “update” on Partygate on 31 January, which was heavily-redacted at the request of the Met, in which she blasted “failures of leadership and judgement” in government, describing the behaviour of some personnel as “difficult to justify”.
In a scathing comment on the culture at No 10 under Mr Johnson’s leadership, the senior civil servant wrote: “Some of the gatherings in question represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time.”
Addressing the House of Commons that same day before an acrimonious gathering of MPs, the PM said he accepted Ms Gray’s “general findings in full” and “above all her recommendation that we must learn from these events and act now”.
He said he was “sorry for the things we simply didn’t get right and also sorry for the way that this matter has been handled”.
“I get it, and I will fix it,” he added. “I want to say to the people of this country I know what the issue is. It is whether this government can be trusted to deliver, and I say ‘yes we can be trusted to deliver’.”
The eruption of Russia’s war in Ukraine the following month and the growing cost of living crisis drove Partygate from the headlines this spring until the Met began issuing its fines, with Mr Johnson, his wife Carrie Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak all penalised for attending a gathering to celebrate the former’s 56th birthday in June 2020.
The PM again shrugged off calls to step down, having done much to bolster his position with unwavering support for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in the interim, but could now face one last challenge to his grip on power.
Ahead of the final publication of Ms Gray’s findings, which is expected to come before MPs break for a 10-day recess on Thursday evening, he finds himself under pressure to explain a “secret” meeting he held with her, seemingly to discuss the dossier’s progress, while initial reports suggest it could include previously unseen photographs and contain “stinging criticism” of Mr Case, despite his not being fined by the Met.
Ms Gray’s remit was not to pass judgement on Partygate, merely to establish precisely what happened, so the final report is expected to amount to a detailed timeline of events based on the hundreds of WhatsApp messages, texts, photos and building logs she looked at and a conclusion summarising her recommendations.
Mr Johnson has pledged to make a statement in the aftermath of its publication and also faces an inquiry by the Commons’ Privileges Committee over whether he knowingly misled Parliament when he claimed no rules had been broken.
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