Boris Johnson boosted by Gray report delay

Publication is not expected until next week, which gives the British prime minister more time to avert a rebellion among MPs

Prime Minister Boris Johnson returning to Downing Street on Wednesday after his combative Commons performance. His political fortunes appear to have improved with the delayed release of Sue Gray's report. PA

Boris Johnson’s battle to remain in office has been reinforced by further delays to the publication of Sue Gray’s report into Covid-19 lockdown breaches at Number 10.

The senior civil servant’s report into rule-breaking Downing Street parties will now probably not be published until Monday at the earliest, giving the British prime minister vital breathing space.

A police statement on Friday raised the prospect of a watered-down version of the report emerging to the public. It revealed discussions between the Cabinet Office and detectives over what can be published by the civil service.

The police want to “avoid any prejudice” to the criminal probe, the statement said.

“For the events the Met is investigating, we asked for minimal reference to be made in the Cabinet Office report,” the police said. “The Met did not ask for any limitations on other events in the report, or for the report to be delayed, but we have had ongoing contact with the Cabinet Office, including on the content of the report.”

Catherine Roper, who is leading the investigation with the Met's Specialist Crime Command, said the inquiry would be undertaken "without fear or favour" and would follow normal processes.

She also denied that the delays to the release were politically motivated, despite allegations to the contrary by some of Mr Johnson's opponents.

It is also understood the document is being examined by both lawyers and human resource managers to ensure it does not hinder the police investigation or cause undue difficulties for those who are brought into the public spotlight. Whitehall officials have confirmed a number of senior civil servants and political advisers will be named with possible censure attached.

Once the report is published, it could go a long way to determining Mr Johnson’s political future as leader.

Ms Gray was expected to issue her findings as early as Tuesday this week, but the last-minute intervention by the Metropolitan Police to investigate her findings with a view to possible criminal prosecution on the same day has caused further delay.

In politics momentum is everything, and the pause has bought crucial time for Mr Johnson to restore his authority, just as it was slipping away.

Mr Johnson during a visit to north Wales, some distance from the challenges facing him in Westminster. Reuters

It has also given space for his shadow whipping operation to take effect, as senior Conservatives persuade colleagues to curb their rebellion against Mr Johnson.

The prime minister has also held an estimated 30 meetings with wavering MPs over the past week, cajoling them to come back onside.

This culminated in one of the strongest House of Commons appearances in months by Mr Johnson during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, when Conservative MPs roared their support.

But with the leader’s diary crammed by MP meetings and visits around the country to distance him from Westminster — on Thursday he was on a mountain in north Wales — there are growing accusations Whitehall is not functioning properly.

Mr Johnson will happily shoulder accusations of running a “zombie government” if he manages to tip-toe past what will be a very challenging period next week — if the Gray report is finally published on Monday or Tuesday, or later.

While the report will inevitably be highly critical of the Downing Street parties held in breach of lockdown rules, it is unclear how much personal condemnation will fall at Mr Johnson’s feet.

If he avoids accusations of lying or misleading the House of Commons, then it is unlikely the 54 letters of no confidence required for a leadership vote will be delivered.

But if he cannot avoid those accusations and the letters arrive, he will face a potentially politically-fatal leadership challenge.

Some MP supporters suggested on Thursday he could win up to 300 of the 359 Conservative MP votes, but other detractors put his support at 200. If it falls below the latter number — the same figure that Theresa May only just achieved in the 2018 challenge to her leadership — then it would almost certainly signal a collapse in support for his premiership.

That would trigger a Conservative leadership election, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Chancellor Rishi Sunak considered the front-runners.

But the excitement of rebellion, defections and leadership contests has largely tapered off as parliament on Thursday was a more sombre place on Holocaust Memorial Day.

It was a time to remember “the strength and resilience of the Jewish people in confronting the Holocaust”, said one Labour MP during a commemoration speech, her words providing a sense of perspective to the drama that has gripped Westminster for the past week.

Updated: January 29, 2022, 1:57 AM