Friday, January 21, 2022

Partygate inquiry: what’s next?

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Boris Johnson’s fate is now not in the hands of his MPs or the country’s voters, but in the hands of a little-known official who is conducting a closed-door investigation into Downing Street parties.

On Wednesday, when he apologized for attending a drinks event at Rose Garden 10 during the lockdown, the Prime Minister pleaded with MPs to suspend judgment on his actions until Sue Gray’s report is published.

The tactic bought the PM time but could prove to be a double-edged sword when it comes to creating expectations that he will obey all of the Whitehall Mandarin’s recommendations. When asked whether he would resign if Gray took action against him, Johnson himself told the House of Commons that he would “respond appropriately” to their findings.

The terms of reference of Ms. Gray’s investigation, as determined by the Cabinet Office, are that its primary purpose is “to quickly establish a general understanding of the nature of the gatherings, including the attendance, framework and purpose for compliance “. on the guidelines applicable at the time ”.

She is not obliged to make recommendations for action, but her area of ​​responsibility makes it clear that she can make a judgment as to whether “individual disciplinary measures are justified”.

However, there are widespread doubts at Westminster that Ms. Gray, as a politically neutral and unelected official, will see it as her job to arrive at such a clear-cut conclusion that it would require the removal of a prime minister.

Previous reports by government officials, as devastating as they were, have usually been worded diplomatically, allowing elected politicians to make the final judgment as to whether any of their colleagues inexorably exceeded its mark.

Sir David Normington, a former permanent secretary of Whitehall, told BBC Radio 4’s Today program: “She will be very much aware that she has the reputation and possibly the careers of high-ranking officials and possibly the Prime Minister in her hands. It is very much difficult to be in a position, however fair and fearless and rigorous you may be. “

A date has not yet been set for Ms. Gray’s investigation to close, and Downing Street only said it will continue until its investigation is completed.

“Sue Gray acts independently, she leads this work. According to the guidelines, she can speak to whoever she wants and investigate at her own discretion to establish the facts, “Johnson’s official spokesman told reporters.

Expectations are high that the report will be sent to Mr Johnson next week, who has agreed to make it public. However, the expected release date has already been postponed several times as new allegations about parties come to light and require additional investigation.

Mr Johnson has announced that he will make a statement to the House of Commons when he receives the report, which will be a moment of extreme danger for the Prime Minister.

Although his resignation is considered highly unlikely, Tory MPs, no matter how critical their findings may be, have made it clear that they are willing to put letters of no confidence in the 1922 chairman of the backbank committee if they agree that his position is no longer tenable. Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady has to give Mr Johnson, as Tory leader, a vote of no confidence if he receives letters from 15 percent of MPs – around 54 Conservatives.

Downing Street will also be on guard watch as the report goes to press, as any Cabinet Secretary considering an offer of leadership could use the report as an opportunity to distance themselves from Johnson and to signal his disapproval of his conduct in office.

It is up to Mr. Johnson to decide what action should be taken in response to the report with respect to disciplinary action or changes in procedures at Downing Street. His independent ethics advisor, Lord Geidt, was only able to intervene at the request of the Prime Minister.

But if Mr Johnson chooses to override or ignore elements of the report, he runs the risk of provoking Ms. Gray to resign, as his former ethics adviser Sir Alex Allan did when the Prime Minister revealed the results of his report in bullying by Priti Patel converted.

Ms. Gray was called in to head the Partygate investigation on December 18 after Cabinet Secretary Simon Case was forced to resign after it was discovered he had hosted a lockdown drinks event at his private office the previous year.

Mr Case had originally been asked to review reports on a single Christmas party in 2020 and was due to finalize his investigation before Parliament took its winter break, but the investigation quickly expanded as new allegations of a number of Covid violations surfaced.

The second permanent secretary in the cabinet office leads a small team empowered to interview officials, ministers, and policy officers on Downing Street and other government departments.

No. 10 has refused to reveal whether the Prime Minister spoke with her request or whether he turned his cell phone or computer over to check message logs.

Downing Street says it “doesn’t recognize” claims from Insider # 10 – revealed by LatestPageNews – that they were told last month to “clean” their phones of anything suggestive of a party.

Ms. Gray is a former director general of decency and ethics in the Cabinet Office and has been described as “the most powerful person you’ve never heard of.”

In 2017, she led an investigation into the resignation of de facto Deputy Prime Minister Damian Green on allegations that pornography was found on his computer.

She also led the so-called “Plebgate” investigation into allegations that then chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, insulted police officers on Downing Street.

Some critics have suggested that Ms. Gray was 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 trace documents” and departments at the “Anti-Disclosure” had supported. .

Mr Johnson’s own future may depend on being able to find a trail of documents indicating his condoning or encouragement of Covid rule violations by No. 10 employees.

Gray has worked in the public sector since the late 1970s, save for a career break in the late 1980s when she ran a pub in Newry with her husband, Bill Conlon, a County Down country singer.

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