The UK Cabinet Office’s primary task is to ensure the effective running of the British government, but that role now appears to involve a large number of internal inquiries into the very people who run the country.
If it were not for the substantial work needed to report on the alleged Downing Street lockdown parties later this week, undoubtedly senior civil servant Sue Gray would have been asked to investigate the Nusrat Ghani racism allegations.
The veteran Whitehall arbitrator is interrogating Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings over the lockdown breaches at Number 10. As her investigation reaches its final stages, a new process looking into the accusations that Ms Ghani was sacked because of her Muslim faith gets under way.
Any initial information Ms Gray receives will certainly be passed on to the Propriety and Ethics team in the Cabinet Office, which will continue with the new government inquiry.
The inquiry will be led by a senior civil servant because the pressure from Ms Ghani and her friend, the Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, meant it would not be an internal Conservative Party investigation, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson had originally suggested.
Free from political influence, the senior civil servant will be charged with getting to the bottom of the events surrounding the reshuffle. That work is set to begin the work on Monday with a view to compiling a list of those required for interview.
Ms Ghani will provide some evidence on what was said to her and who she suspects were the people who suggested her “Muslimness” was “making colleagues uncomfortable” when Chief Whip Mark Spencer spoke to her following the dismissal.
Mr Spencer will be closely questioned on who in the Conservative Party or government made the highly offensive comments. The hurdle here is that he has completely refuted using the words, or any suggestion that others in the party did so.
Meeting in person
It will be his evidence against Ms Ghani’s and it is not know if there were any witnesses to the exchange. For many the comments are so inflammatory, they seem unlikely to have been invented.
Therefore the Cabinet Office investigator will need to dig deep. Potentially Mr Cummings could prove a significant help as he would have certainly been involved in the mini-reshuffle during which Ms Ghani was sacked from her transport minister post.
Mr Johnson will — again — have to put time aside from leading the country to be asked about his actions in government and those of his colleagues. It will be the third time in a year that he has been questioned over apparent wrongdoings in Downing Street — an unenviable record for any British prime minister — by a member of the permanent civil service.
Internal party inquiry not appropriate
He will be asked why — despite Ms Ghani’s protestations — he suggested a Conservative Party investigation rather than the government-led one that she requested.
“This was not a party issue, this was a government issue,” Conservative peer Baroness Sayeeda Warsi told the BBC on Monday. “This allegation relates to comments made in Downing Street, not Conservative headquarters; it relates to a job in government, not a job in the Conservative Party.”
It is a mark of her character and commitment that Ms Ghani continued to support the issues she had been confronted with while in government. There was genuine empathy in her approach when she was interviewed by The National in July 2020 over the plight of sailors stranded on ships unable to fly home during the pandemic.
“Seafarers are out at sea and out of mind but everything in our homes is there because they are at work, shipping goods to us,” she said.
Her attitude suggests a big element of human compassion in her politics, which makes disregard of her own feelings difficult.
“Not a day has gone by without thinking about what I was told and wondering why I was in politics, while hoping for the government to take this seriously,” Ms Ghani wrote in The Times. “Those that have not had their identity and faith questioned cannot fully appreciate what it does to you.”
During her meeting with Mr Johnson in June 2020 she urged him to take the racism matter seriously and “instigate an inquiry”.
Terms of reference
Finally, Mr Johnson has acceded, albeit nearly two years later. “I have many things that I want to achieve in politics, not least my campaigns on human rights and genocide, and I am deeply disappointed that it has come to this,” Ms Ghani added.
“Because of the seriousness of these allegations it's important we establish the facts of the case in relation to government that's why there's the Cabinet Office investigation,” the prime minister's spokesman said on Monday.
For Ms Ghani, the full inquiry will help after a very difficult time and perhaps she will be reinstalled into government.
The question is — with Ms Gray’s “partygate” report imminent — whether it would be an appointment made by Mr Johnson.