The police are investigating a dozen Downing Street parties where there has been a serious breach of the law, it was disclosed in the long-awaited Sue Gray report on Monday.
The inquiry into lockdown-breaking parties at No 10 found there was a “serious failure” to observe the rules at the heart of government.
The report could have been devastating with the potential to unseat Prime Minister Boris Johnson but it is now clear that with a Metropolitan Police investigation under way, any evidence of serious wrongdoing might take weeks to emerge, if at all.
The British prime minister made a statement in the Commons on Monday and apologised, insisting “I get it and I will fix it” as he faced fresh calls to resign after the inquiry update emerged.
“Firstly, I want to say sorry – and I’m sorry for the things we simply didn’t get right and also sorry for the way this matter has been handled," he said. “I want to say to the people of this country I know what the issue is.”
It is unlikely, with the diluted report now published, that his fellow Conservative MPs will submit the 54 letters required to trigger a confidence vote.
The most damning statement Ms Gray could make on Mr Johnson were his "failures of leadership and judgment” in Downing Street where a total of 16 parties took place between May 2020 and April 2021.
The first was held in Downing Street’s Rose Garden only seven weeks into the first lockdown, by which time 33,000 people had already died. The British public had been strictly ordered to remain at home or face criminal prosecution if they breached the lockdown rules.
“Against the backdrop of the pandemic, when the Government was asking citizens to accept far-reaching restrictions on their lives, some of the behaviour surrounding these gatherings is difficult to justify,” the report said.
The gatherings represented “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”.
While Ms Gray implied that she was greatly restricted on what she could publish about the parties due to the police involvement, she said there was “too little thought given to what was happening across the country” and the “appropriateness” of parties at a time when hundreds of people were dying daily.
“There were failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times,” the report said. “Some of the events should not have been allowed to take place.”
She also condemned the drinking culture that seemed to have gripped Downing Street. “The excessive consumption of alcohol is not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time,” she said.
Police investigations continuing
The Gray Report was originally meant to appear on Tuesday last week – at a time when Mr Johnson’s leadership was under severe pressure – but at the last moment the Met Police stepped in and launched its own inquiry. It is understood a number of police officers who guard Downing Street or form part of the prime minister’s close protection were questioned. As a result, Ms Gray could not publish her findings in full in order “not to prejudice the police investigative process”.
Her careful wording suggested that this was frustrating. “They have told me that it would only be appropriate to make minimal reference to the gatherings on the dates they are investigating. Unfortunately, this necessarily means that I am extremely limited in what I can say about those events and it is not possible at present to provide a meaningful report.”
During the two-month investigation a small team of civil servants led by Ms Gray, the second permanent secretary, interviewed more than 70 staff including political advisers, police and civil servants, “some more than once”.
They examined a string of emails, WhatsApp messages, text messages and photographs as well as building entry and exit logs that gathered “extensive substantive factual information”.
This information has now led to the 12 police inquiries that are likely to result in people being given £100 fixed penalty fines.
Concluding her report, Ms Gray urged for immediate reform at Downing Street. “There is significant learning to be drawn from these events which must be addressed immediately across government,” she wrote.
Gatherings newly revealed in the report were an event in the Cabinet Office on June 18, 2020, to mark the leaving of a No 10 private secretary, a third gathering on December 17, 2020 – on top of two already reported – to mark the departure of a No 10 official in Downing Street, and another event on January 14, 2021, also in No 10, when two private secretaries left.