For the past five months, senior civil servant Sue Gray has been holed up in a nondescript office at No 70 Whitehall, along with a handful of young officials.
Despite the size of her task investigating Partygate she has, according to colleagues and friends, been given very little assistance by senior figures in the civil service, including cabinet secretary Simon Case and members of the prime minister’s political operation at No 10.
Colleagues and friends know that Gray is extremely tough. But they still feel for her and fear she has been deliberately ostracised with a view to making her task all but impossible.
“She has been left to do it on her own with very little support,” says a senior figure and colleague who knows her well. “Imagine being in her position. She has been horribly isolated.”
Where there has been contact from her peers and senior figures in the system, it has often been in the form of subtle or not-so-subtle pressure to tone her findings down and omit details, names and photographs of boozy events at the heart of power.
A Whitehall official who knows about the inquiry was “horrified” by the way Gray had been installed to investigate the organisation she works within, then given minimum help and maximum discouragement from revealing the truth.
The suspicion among many in the civil service is that Gray was asked to do the job because those at No 10 thought that it would be impossible even for someone as respected as Gray to reveal all the system’s wrongdoings from the inside, particularly if she wanted to remain in the civil service afterwards.
Despite this, Gray has ploughed gamely on, gathering information from emails, photographs, phone logs and police security logs in an attempt to establish what parties happened when, and who attended them.
This weekend, with days to go before the release of her final report – one that could well have a bearing on how long Boris Johnson can remain prime minister – the pressure on her from No 10 and civil servants is at its height.
Those who know Gray and have been kept in the loop about her work predict that she will be very critical of the No 10 culture and will resist heavy last-minute special pleading.
It is not clear whether she will publish photos, but she will make it clear that what happened at No 10 amounted to a serious failure of leadership at the highest levels. One friend said her report would be “gruesome” for Johnson and the civil service.
Another source, who has seen part of it, said that while it would not in all probability contain a “smoking gun” detail that would kill off Johnson’s premiership, it would be the “real deal” and could prove to be more damaging for the PM than the fine for attending his own birthday party has turned out to be.
This is because it would make it clear that Johnson’s repeated involvement in “a series of other events over a prolonged period” reinforces the impression that Downing Street partied while the PM had the country living under the toughest peacetime restrictions in living memory.
The way was cleared for Gray to publish her findings in the next few days after the Metropolitan Police announced last week that it had concluded its own inquiry into Partygate. The force said 126 fixed-penalty notices (FPNs) had been levied against 83 people pertaining to eight events from May 2020 to April 2021. To the surprise of many, Johnson escaped further fines.
The fact that the prime minister avoided more punishment was greeted with inevitable delight in Downing Street and by Tory MPs who want Johnson to survive. But for many of those directly affected, the conclusion of the Met investigation has caused huge resentment, particularly among junior staff who have been fined, in some cases repeatedly, while their superiors seem to have avoided punishment.
A very senior civil service source said the police investigation appeared both “chaotic” and “completely inconsistent” and had left a sour taste.
It seemed, he said, that many of those who had been fined had received penalties because their names had been handed to police by Sue Gray after they admitted to her that they had been at events. But then the police had not subsequently been able to establish the identities of many of the others at the same events, including very senior people.
One well-placed Whitehall figure told the Observer that this left junior staff who had “fessed up” very angry. “From what I understand, many of these parties were attended by 40 to 50 people. In all, more than 300 people were involved, but only 83 were fined. If Sue Gray handed five names to the police, and there were 45 others there, many of the 45 were not identified. There will be people who have been fined several times because they fessed up.
“There are also people who went to multiple events who have not been fined at all. Then there are people who have been to multiple events and have been fined for one but not others, and they will not understand why that one and not the other. It is all very inconsistent.”
The source added: “People may feel aggrieved because they volunteered information and they assumed that people more senior or close to Johnson would be fined too. It is all very chaotic.”
All this provides a toxic background to the release of Gray’s report, which is expected this week. Up to 30 people are likely to be identified directly or indirectly by Gray. Johnson and Case are among those who will be named. Some believe Case will be much more heavily and directly criticised by Gray than Johnson, and that this will lead the PM to make a sacrificial lamb of his cabinet secretary in order to protect himself.
“That may well be why Case is still there while so many others have already gone,” said an insider. “Johnson will need a body.”
Those whom Gray intends to name have been given until tonight to make representations, and many are said to still be demanding anonymity. When Gray has considered and dealt with their replies, the report will go to the prime minister, who has promised to publish it without delay.
The question everyone is asking in Westminster and Whitehall is how damaging the combined effects of the Gray report and the fallout from the chaotic police investigation could prove to be for Johnson. With Keir Starmer having promised to quit if he is fined over Beergate, can Johnson really retain enough public respect to govern until the next general election if Gray criticises a lax culture at Downing Street that allowed boozy lockdown-breaking party sessions to become the norm?
One former Tory cabinet minister said he thought the combination of the unsatisfactory police investigation and the Gray report would leave the Tories with the worst of all worlds. “I suspect it will be damaging but not so damaging that enough of our MPs move to get rid of him, so he just continues to damage the Conservative brand.”
Tory MPs believe another big moment of danger will come when two byelections are held on 23 June, in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton, which could see Johnson’s party suffer a devastating double defeat to Labour and the Lib Dems respectively. “If parties and the PM’s role in them are still losing us votes, that could be fatal,” said an ex-minister.
A friend of Gray’s who used to work with her in the civil service said that despite being left isolated without help, and seemingly set up to fail in a back room of the Cabinet Office, she would ensure she makes her mark.
“She is very determined to be honest. Her own personal reputation is on the line here. For Sue, I think it will be partly about the morality. Given how much others have suffered in the pandemic, she doesn’t want to be set up as someone who does not deliver an honest, forthright report.”
The source added: “There used to be one party at No 10 every year, and that was the Christmas party. That was it. We didn’t have karaoke machines or suitcases for wheeling in booze. It is the culture that was allowed to prevail that is most striking and astonishing thing to me – and I think Sue will be very critical of that.”
Three scenarios for the PM
Johnson battles on
Boris Johnson’s team have been growing increasingly confident that the man David Cameron once described as a “greased piglet” will again wriggle free. It looked improbable that the prime minster could survive just a few months ago, as Tory MPs began to call for his departure after the police launched an inquiry into a series of lockdown breaches in Downing Street known as Partygate.
Yet such were the dire predictions over his fate that emerging from the crisis with a single fine represents a bizarre triumph for Johnson. While the details in Sue Gray’s report will be brutal and incredibly embarrassing, the lack of a “smoking gun” detail over the prime minister’s actions means he will offer an apology for the shortcomings in Downing Street culture and vow to make changes.
His tactic of battling through another crisis will be made easier by the fact that his obvious replacement, chancellor Rishi Sunak, has been tainted by the fine he received for a brief appearance at the prime minister’s June 2020 birthday gathering. Johnson was also fined for that gathering.
The recent focus on Sunak’s personal wealth is another factor stopping some MPs from submitting their letters of no confidence to the chairman of the party’s 1922 committee, Graham Brady. Those on the liberal wing worry about ridding themselves of Johnson, only to herald in another leader from the right of the party.
Likelihood rating: 4/5
Leadership election is triggered
While Johnson’s leadership is now expected to survive the publication of Gray’s long-awaited report, those expectations also create dangers for the prime minister. There are still new details within the report that could cause serious problems for Johnson. The fallout from it – as well as anger from figures within Whitehall over its handling – remains unpredictable and hard to control.
It is true that Conservative MPs, even many critics, do not now believe it is the right time to topple Johnson, but support for him across the party is extremely shallow. Any kind of momentum towards removing him could be enough to convince the party that the lack of an obvious replacement is not a strong enough reason to leave Johnson ensconced in No 10.
There are a number of issues related to Gray’s report that could prompt a new round of speculation over the prime minister’s future. Details that show the extent of his presence at illegal gatherings are the obvious point of weakness – the lack of a fine does not necessarily mean rules were not broken.
Many Tories have long believed that the publication of any pictures of the gatherings could also be a gamechanger for both the public and the party. Should photos be published in the report, or otherwise find their way into the media, it is possible that anger could snowball to the point where enough Tory MPs submit letters of no confidence, triggering a vote on Johnson’s leadership. He could still win such a vote, but even victory would leave him diminished in office.
Likelihood rating: 2/5
Damp squib and survival
The best-case scenario for No 10 would be the arrival of a report from Gray that contains little more than the facts already established about the parties in Downing Street.
Johnson’s team would be able to suggest that Gray had already pointed out “failures of leadership and judgment” in her interim report published in January. Johnson would repeat apologies for those lapses, but point to changes in personnel and culture that have already occurred since that report. Pictures would remain secret and Johnson would feel emboldened to hold a reshuffle and draw a line under the crisis, making it ever more likely he will contest the next election.
In this scenario, the focus may well turn to how the report was put together, the level of cooperation Gray was given, any pressure put on her during her inquiry, and the treatment of junior staff compared with that of their political masters.
Even in this scenario, however, there will still be another hurdle for Johnson to clear. The Commons privileges committee will now begin its own investigation into whether the prime minister misled parliament over his claims that no rules were broken. They will request access to material such as photos, meaning the issue could rumble on well beyond Gray’s verdict.
Likelihood rating: 1/5
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism