The Metropolitan Police will investigate claims of parties held at No 10 during lockdown and under coronavirus restrictions, the commissioner Cressida Dick has confirmed.
She told the London Assembly that her force has launched a criminal investigation as a result of information it has been provided by the Cabinet Office.
Until now, London’s police force had repeatedly decided against launching an investigation, insisting to the New Statesman and others that its detectives had not seen enough evidence and its policy was not to retrospectively probe Covid breaches that weren’t an ongoing threat to public health.
The pressure has been mounting on Scotland Yard – whose reputation sank even lower after a series of scandals last year – to change its position. The Good Law Project is set to sue the force over its failure to investigate (which could have led the High Court to deem its decision unlawful), the Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey wrote to Dick calling on her to question Boris Johnson under caution, and its own officers have reportedly given “extremely damning” evidence to the Sue Gray inquiry into the Downing Street parties.
Although it has been in communication with the Cabinet Office, poised to pick up any criminal activity uncovered by the civil service investigation, its decision not to investigate has become politically untenable.
As one former senior Met source, who recalls its involvement in the cash-for-honours scandal, told the New Statesman, this case is in a “different league” to past Covid law breaches by the general public with “Mrs A reporting Mr B”.
Although having two parallel investigations running at the same time can be unhelpful, they pointed out that this course of action is sometimes necessary with events as vital to the public interest as this one – the Grenfell Tower fire being another example.
The upshot of this latest development is that the Gray inquiry’s findings – expected to be released in the week beginning Monday 24 January – will now be delayed, potentially for weeks, while the Met gathers evidence, showing the problem with running parallel investigations.
This has been described as “some kind of reprieve for the Prime Minister” by ITV’s political editor Robert Peston – most Conservative MPs have been waiting for Gray to report before moving to oust Johnson, and now they’ll have to wait longer, after all.
Yet the Met’s bar for investigating was always if it received evidence from the Cabinet Office or elsewhere of “behaviour that is potentially a criminal offence” that it deemed needed further probing. (It is already questioning two people who attended a gathering on 14 December 2020 at Conservative Party HQ in relation to alleged breaches of Covid-19 rules, over which the former Tory London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey resigned from the London Assembly last December).
While this may be a stay of execution for the Prime Minister, it is hardly a political coup if that bar for evidence has been met. And in the meantime, it is all government ministers doing the media rounds will be asked about, and there will be no opportunity for a proper apology or an attempt to draw a line under the scandal until both inquiries are complete.