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UXBRIDGE, ENGLAND – MAY 26: U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson chats with residents in a Diamond Jubilee-themed room, as he makes a constituency visit to Sweetcroft care home on May 26, 2022 in Uxbridge, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
The forever inquiry

The forever inquiry

UXBRIDGE, ENGLAND – MAY 26: U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson chats with residents in a Diamond Jubilee-themed room, as he makes a constituency visit to Sweetcroft care home on May 26, 2022 in Uxbridge, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Sue Gray’s report has failed completely to draw a line under partygate – and has exposed the feebleness of Johnson’s defence

“Hinduja”: the single-word WhatsApp message from a cabinet minister over the weekend was initially baffling, as part of an exchange about “partygate” and Boris Johnson’s political position in the wake of Sue Gray’s report. But then I cottoned on.

In January 2001, the late Sir Anthony Hammond was appointed to investigate allegations that Peter Mandelson – who had already resigned as Northern Ireland secretary – had intervened improperly in the passport application of the Indian tycoon Srichand Hinduja. The inquiry cleared Mandelson of misconduct, but not as fulsomely as he had hoped.

Having unearthed further documentation on the passport affair, he was able – remarkably – to persuade Tony Blair to reopen the Hammond inquiry in February 2002. A second report was duly published a month later, prompting Number 10 to declare that, had the new evidence been available earlier, Mandelson’s job might have been saved. 

Why refer, rather cryptically, to this 20-year-old political quagmire, ancient history of the New Labour era? The point my cabinet source was making was simple: inquiries can be revived. Investigations that have been closed, with much talk of lines being drawn and the need to “move on”, have a funny way of springing back into life. Westminster controversies are rarely tidy – especially this one.

The publication on Wednesday of the final Gray report was meant to be a moment of catharsis for the prime minister. In a day of organised (though carefully qualified) contrition, he apologised again to the Commons, held a press conference on the report’s findings and appeared before the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers. According to one source: “We really did think we had a shot at putting the whole damn thing in a box once and for all.”

To help seal the deal and change the record, Rishi Sunak sprang into action on Thursday to announce a £15 billion package to alleviate the cost-of-living crisis, partly funded by a £5 billion windfall tax on energy companies. More bathetically, the media was briefed about Johnson’s plan to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee by restoring imperial units: he might be in a whole lot of political trouble, but at least its scale would now be measured in perches and roods, rather than hectares.

Over the weekend, there have also been strategically timed stories about the government opening more grammar schools, taking a tougher line on gender ideology, and – that hardy perennial – igniting a “bonfire of EU rules”. This is what Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, called “flooding the zone” – doing and saying anything to distract, divert and disorientate the media. If Johnson believed that posing for tourists on a crate as an immobilised silver Dumbledore in Covent Garden would help put partygate to bed, he’d be spraying himself with paint even now. 

Unfortunately for the PM, this particular scandal turns out to be a relapsing, remitting condition that continues to afflict his government. Last Tuesday, the Times reported that he had suggested to Gray in April that she ditch her report entirely, given that the details of the alleged Downing Street festivities were already “all out there”. Asked about this claim at Wednesday’s press conference, Johnson mumbled about the “terms of reference” of Gray’s inquiry and said only that “it’s entirely right that she has [delivered her report]” – a non-denial denial if ever there was one.

Even more seriously, the Sunday Times alleged yesterday that Gray had been lobbied to alter key sections of her report by Steve Barclay, the PM’s chief of staff; Simon Case, the cabinet secretary; and Alex Chisholm, the permanent secretary for the Cabinet Office. Again, on yesterday’s political television shows, Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, would say only that – on the basis of his knowledge of Gray’s incorruptible character – he was “confident” that these claims could not be true. This, please note, was an assertion of probability, not an outright denial of the story.

As for Gray herself: four officials reportedly told her that they heard Abba music being played in the prime minister’s flat on the night of 13 November 2020 – allegedly at a party hosted by his then fiancée, Carrie, to celebrate the departure of his senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, and communications chief, Lee Cain. It is still unclear why, in her report, Gray chose to say nothing substantial about this gathering.

As Cummings himself says in an interview with Suzanne Moore posted yesterday: “..some of [the report is] a bit brazen. The sort of ‘Well I stopped investigating the party in the flat because the police got involved.’ Yeah, but then the police didn’t investigate it. So basically, once you’ve got all that the cops have, they’ve sort of just said ‘Fuck this. We’re not going to get involved with the after-party on the night of the 13th’.”

To cap it all, Carrie Johnson is also now alleged to have held another party in the flat on 19 June 2020 – the day of her husband’s birthday and of the unlawful gathering in the Cabinet room for which he received a fixed penalty notice of £50. In his interview with Moore, Cummings claims that “the police and Sue Gray decided not to investigate [the Johnsons’ alleged socialising with journalists] or to investigate [parties at] Chequers either.”

At least two additional inquiries now loom over the PM. First, he faces the scrutiny of the Commons Committee of Privileges, which has been tasked with establishing whether he knowingly misled parliament over the Downing Street parties. It seems probable that Gray will be asked to appear at these hearings, and that the scope of the committee’s investigation will grow incrementally as fresh allegations are made.

Second, Sadiq Khan, the London Mayor, has asked the Met for a “detailed explanation” of the criteria it applied when issuing 126 fines to 83 individuals as a result of its investigations. “I think it’s important,” Khan said last week, “when it comes to trust and confidence, when it comes to policing by consent, when it comes to questions being asked about the integrity of an investigation that the police explain why they’ve reached the conclusions they have.”

It is no small matter for a senior politician to express such reservations about operational decisions taken by the police. But the mayor is quite right to do so. Indeed, it is remarkable that so few have followed his lead. 

Why, for example, was the PM fined for attending his birthday party in the Cabinet Room in June 2020, but not for being present at Lee Cain’s leaving do on 13 November 2020 – an event that led to others being issued with penalties? Why was he spared punishment for attending the notorious “Bring Your Own Booze” party in the Number 10 garden on 20 May 2020? There is no rhyme or reason in these decisions, and others like them. And the stakes are too high for the Met operation – apparently a series of arbitrary and incoherent discretionary judgments – to be left unchallenged.

In the first instance, the political metric that matters is the number of Conservative MPs that have submitted letters of no confidence in the PM to Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee – 54 being required to trigger a contest to decide his future as Conservative leader.

I take all estimates of the present number with a pinch of salt, though it is clear that the total is clicking upwards steadily. Most MPs still seem set on waiting for the outcome of the Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton by-elections on 23 June. But – really – how much more evidence one way or the other do they need to assess Johnson’s capacity to continue in the top job?

If they were paying attention last week, they would have witnessed a prime minister effectively rewriting pandemic law retrospectively. In the Commons, Johnson based his defence on an entirely phoney argument that should have been ripped apart on the spot – but, depressingly, wasn’t. 

As he put it: “when people are working very hard together, day in, day out, it can be difficult to draw the boundary between work and socialising.”

In the subsequent press conference, he leant into this spurious argument: “I think it was right, when people are working very hard for very long hours, …and they’re moving on to some other part of government… or leaving government service altogether I think it is right to thank them… I believe that they were work events. They were part of my job.” He added: “It didn’t occur to me that this was anything except what it was my duty to do as prime minister during a pandemic and that’s why I did it.”

This is spectacular nonsense, and should be called out as such. There was no ambiguity at all in the Covid rules about what was and what wasn’t allowed in the workplace: indeed, this was the whole point. As the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, remarked when the regulations were first being drafted, they involved a temporary inversion of what law is; a jurisprudential upheaval.

Normally, legislation sets out what is prohibited. During the pandemic, however, it specified explicitly what forms of behaviour were permitted – and forbade everything else. Scour the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 and all subsequent amendments. Look through the Business Department’s May 2020 guidance on how to function at the workplace. You will find not a single reference to “leaving dos”, or morale-boosting speeches, or the boss’s “duty” to thank colleagues who are leaving at an office gathering.

They are not mentioned because – well, because they were obviously inconceivable in the new context. All such gestures and rituals, the warp and weft of normal office life, were immediately prohibited when the pandemic regulations were introduced. This was overwhelmingly clear at the time, and barely needed to be spelt out to anyone with a modicum of common sense and decency. If families were forbidden from saying farewell to their dying relatives, how could it possibly be acceptable to say farewell to departing colleagues in person?

Needless to say, some Tory MPs have already decided to go along with the PM’s retro engineered fantasy. On Monday’s Newsnight, Peter Bone said of the party on 13 November 2020, pictures of which had just emerged: “I think we can all agree it was a work event.” Sir Desmond Swayne, MP for New Forest West, made the same point: “It was a work do. That’s what people do at work. You have leaving dos.”

Not during a pandemic, Sir Desmond, and not on a day when 376 Covid deaths were announced. And yet, in these delusional statements by Tory MPs, one sees a very British version of the Republican myth of the stolen 2020 presidential election. 

To protect Donald Trump, it is necessary to claim – quite fictionally – that the voting was systematically rigged. To protect Boris Johnson, it is necessary to claim – no less fictionally, if rather less dramatically – that leaving dos were classified as work events during the Covid emergency. They absolutely, categorically weren’t. But that won’t stop a certain cohort of senior Tories going along with the deceit. As their colleague, Alicia Kearns, the Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton, said on Friday, “the shameful lengths some will pursue to preserve this premiership” are nothing less than a disgrace.

On this matter, as on so much else, the public is way ahead of the governing party. According to a YouGov poll published on Wednesday, 74 per cent think that Johnson knowingly lied about whether or not he broke lockdown rules, and 59 per cent think he should resign. What should alarm Tory strategists – if they are unmoved by the ethical content of these figures – is their steadiness. 

Survey after survey finds that this is what the public thinks of the PM. Opinion is hardening dangerously, as it did in the prelude to John Major’s landslide defeat in 1997. Johnson presently has a working majority of 77, which Major most certainly did not. As against that: politics is spectacularly more volatile than it was 25 years ago. The Red Wall voters who defected to the Conservatives in 2019 are already experiencing serious buyer’s remorse. This is definitely not what they signed up for.

“It’s like herpes,” says one senior source of partygate. “It just keeps coming back.” An unlovely metaphor, for sure, but an accurate one. In private, Johnson rages that he has done nothing wrong and that he is the victim of a priggish media plot to derail his magnificent plans for the nation.

That defiance still has the capacity to impress some of his MPs but it will do him no good as he seeks to restore his direct radio connection with the electorate. He badly needs this scandal to go away. He badly needs closure.

Sue Gray’s inquiry has conspicuously failed to make that happen. But don’t worry, prime minister. There’ll be another one along shortly.