“Unfortunately,” wrote the civil servant Sue Gray in her update on the Cabinet Office inquiry into No 10 and Whitehall parties, “I am extremely limited in what I can say about those events and it is not possible at present to provide a meaningful report.”
This is because the Metropolitan Police told her that it “would only be appropriate to make minimal reference to the gatherings on the dates they are investigating” so as “not to prejudice the police investigative process”.
Despite this questionable instruction from London’s police force, which controversially took weeks to intervene in the case in the first place, the update does reveal that 12 gatherings have reached the threshold for the Met to investigate – ie potentially criminal behaviour:
• 20 May 2020: a gathering in the garden of No 10 Downing Street for No 10 staff.
• 18 June 2020: a gathering in the Cabinet Office, 70 Whitehall, on the departure of a No 10 private secretary.
• 19 June 2020: a gathering in the cabinet room in No 10 Downing Street on the Prime Minister’s birthday.
• 13 November 2020: a gathering in the No 10 Downing Street flat and a gathering in No 10 Downing Street on the departure of a special adviser.
• 17 December 2020: a gathering in Cabinet Office, 70 Whitehall, to hold an online Christmas quiz for the cabinet secretary’s private office; a gathering in Cabinet Office, 70 Whitehall on the departure of a senior Cabinet Office official; and a gathering in No 10 Downing Street on the departure of a No 10 official.
• 18 December 2020: a gathering in No 10 Downing Street ahead of the Christmas break.
• 14 January 2021: a gathering in No 10 Downing Street on the departure of two No 10 private secretaries.
• 16 April 2021: a gathering in No 10 Downing Street on the departure of a senior No 10 official and a gathering in No 10 Downing Street on the departure of another No 10 official.
That’s a dozen potentially illegal events at the heart of government, including one in the Prime Minister’s own flat and one to celebrate his birthday.
[See also: Is the Met incompetent or does it just not care?]
Gray confirmed in her update that this was not the full report, and that all the material she has gathered has been provided to the Met, so now Westminster’s focus turns to what the Met will do with it. It has received more than 300 photos and over 500 pages of information from the Cabinet Office.
How long will it take the Met to investigate No 10?
A spokesperson would not comment on how long an investigation would take, simply saying it would progress “at pace”. It is thought this means weeks rather than months.
Depending on the evidence, it could lead to immediate fines being issued or take much longer, according to Brian Paddick, who served as a senior Metropolitan Police officer until 2007 and is now a Lib Dem peer and the party’s home affairs spokesperson.
“If Sue Gray has presented the police with evidence of criminal conduct beyond reasonable doubt, they should issue fixed penalty notices immediately,” he says. “If they feel there is not enough evidence, they may have to interview people under caution, and take action – or not – based on their responses. That could take months.”
We already know it has taken the Met six weeks and counting to investigate one similar party that allegedly breached coronavirus restrictions at the time.
On 16 December 2021 a spokesperson confirmed it would question two people who attended a Christmas party at Conservative Party headquarters on 14 December 2020. That event, over which the former Tory candidate for mayor London Shaun Bailey resigned, is separate from the investigation into Downing Street and Whitehall parties. I now hear that those two people have been questioned, yet the Met’s inquiries are still ongoing.
Perhaps the last comparable investigation was its probe into the cash for honours scandal. This involved a sitting prime minister and caught a lot of attention.
It began in March 2006 when the MP Angus MacNeil wrote to the then Met commissioner Ian Blair claiming that four businessmen who had lent Labour large sums of money were then nominated for peerages by the prime minister, Tony Blair. Ian Blair passed the letter on to the Specialist Crime Directorate, whose detectives took the case on.
It took just over year after this investigation begun for the Met to hand the dossier over to the Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether there would be criminal charges. It was more than 200 pages long with at least 6,000 supporting documents.
This was deemed at the time to be a sufficiently thorough investigation. I hear that at least one police figure who was involved in the cash-for-honours investigation does not understand why the commissioner, Cressida Dick, has approached this current case in the way she has.
Another example is the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire. The Met began its criminal investigation in June 2017, and still has not taken its findings to the CPS as it waits for the public inquiry to finish this year. Although a very different case, it shows how running parallel investigations can be unhelpful.
Is the Met buying Boris Johnson more time?
In the case of partygate, if officers decide to take enforcement action against individuals involved, then they will send a report to the Criminal Records Office, which will issue them fixed penalty notice. As far as the police are concerned, once those fixed penalty notices are paid then the matter will be considered closed. This could still involve what Paddick describes as the “nightmare scenario” for Cressida Dick of investigating the Prime Minister.
“My feeling is the Met did not want to end up having to prosecute the Prime Minster and those close to him,” he says. “It appears to me that they asked Sue Gray to withhold her evidence in the most blatant cases, hoping to find some way of avoiding that scenario. This could possibly involve claiming she had not established the facts beyond reasonable doubt, or coming up with different conclusions or alternative facts to Sue Gray.”
Yet regarding the incidents omitted from the Gray report, “the very fact the police are investigating them means they are the most serious and blatant breaches, then the police are complicit in buying the Prime Minister more time,” he adds.
If the investigation into the 12 gatherings finds the Prime Minister misled the House of Commons, then the ministerial code dictates he should resign. This is not legally binding, however, and he is the ultimate arbiter of the ministerial code. Nevertheless, a number of cabinet ministers have conceded publicly that the right thing if you lie to the chamber is to resign.
If the investigation finds the Prime Minister broke the law at any of the gatherings, then that is also a conduct matter to be considered under the ministerial code.
Yet while we wait, the calls for the full report to be published regardless of the Met’s probe will continue.
“Bearing in mind the relatively minor sanctions for Covid breaches and the overwhelming public interest in the facts, the full report should be published now,” says Paddick. “Even if it jeopardises potential prosecutions.”