Gatherings ‘difficult to justify’
But will the prime minister be held to account?
Sue Gray was placed in an impossible position by Scotland Yard. In order not to prejudice the investigative process, the Metropolitan Police asked her to make only minimal reference to the gatherings they are now investigating. She felt she had to comply.
As a result, the senior civil servant has not yet been able to do as she was asked by Boris Johnson and “provide a meaningful report” about gatherings that took place in No 10 Downing Street and around Whitehall during the Covid restrictions.
Will the prime minister be held to account? “By routinely breaking the rules he set, said the Labour leader Keir Starmer, “he showed himself unfit for office.”
Realistically, it may be a year or more before Gray’s updated report can be published. Although the “investigative process” could be completed within a matter of months, there will then be pressure on Gray not to prejudice any criminal proceedings.
These are most likely to involve fixed penalty notices or hearings in the magistrates’ court and they are not likely to be influenced by anything Gray may say. But I fear she will be prevailed on to wait until the entire criminal process is concluded.
That does not mean that Gray’s report is either a whitewash or a waste of time. She concludes, with mandarin-like understatement:
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.
At least some of the gatherings in question represent 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…
Some of the events should not have been allowed to take place. Other events should not have been allowed to develop as they did.
Crucially, Gray lists 12 separate gatherings that the police are now investigating. These happened on eight different dates over a period of nearly a year — though the police themselves managed to confuse the number of dates with the number of gatherings:
Nine of the gatherings under investigation were at No 10 Downing Street while three were in the Cabinet Office at 70 Whitehall. The two buildings are closely linked.
It’s worth stressing that, on the evidence seen by Gray, these are not alleged gatherings or possible gatherings. These were actual gatherings whose “necessity for work purposes has been open to question”, as she put it. They are, implicitly, gatherings that are “considered to have reached the threshold for criminal investigation”.
And, most damning of all, we can now be sure that three events the police are looking into were ones that Johnson himself attended:
20 May 2020 in the Downing Street garden
19 June 2020 in the Cabinet Room for the prime minister's birthday
13 November 2020, the day that Dominic Cummings resigned
The police are also investigating a second gathering on 13 November 2020 in the Downing Street flat — though it’s not clear whether the prime minister was there.
And yet this is how the prime minister answered a parliamentary question last month:
In response to the prime minister’s statement to parliament this afternoon, Starmer delivered was widely acknowledged to have been the most effective speech he has ever made as leader of the Labour Party. For once, his forensic approach is exactly what was needed. This is how the former director of public prosecutions began:
The prime minister repeatedly assured the house that the guidance was followed and the rules were followed. But we now know that 12 cases have breached the threshold for criminal investigation, which I remind the house means that there is evidence of serious and flagrant breaches of lockdown, including the party on 20 May 2020, which we know the prime minister attended, and the party on 13 November 2020 in the prime minister’s flat. There can be no doubt that the prime minister himself is now subject to criminal investigation.
The prime minister must keep his promise to publish Sue Gray’s report in full when it is available, but it is already clear what the report disclosed is the most damning conclusion possible…
By routinely breaking the rules he set, the prime minister took us all for fools. He held people’s sacrifice in contempt. He showed himself unfit for office.
The prime minister’s desperate denials since he was exposed have only made matters worse. Rather than come clean, every step of the way he has insulted the public’s intelligence.
And now he’s finally fallen back on his usual excuse: it’s everybody’s fault but his. They go; he stays. Even now he is hiding behind a police investigation into criminality in his home and his office.
He gleefully treats what should be a mark of shame as a welcome shield. But the British public aren’t fools; they never believed a word of it; they think the prime minister should do the decent thing and resign.
Of course he won’t — because he is a man without shame and, just as he has done throughout his life, he’s damaged everyone and everything around him along the way.
His colleagues have spent weeks defending the indefensible, touring the TV studios parroting his absurd denials, degrading themselves and their offices, fraying the bond of trust between the government and the public, eroding our democracy and the rule of law…
Margaret Thatcher once said: “The first duty of government is to uphold the law. If it tries to bob and weave and duck around that duty when it is inconvenient… then so will the governed.”
Theresa May’s question was shorter but equally devastating:
What the Gray report does show is that No 10 Downing Street was not observing the regulations they had imposed on members of the public, so either [the prime minister] had not read the rules, or did not understand what they meant—and others around him—or they did not think the rules applied to No 10. Which was it?
Because of the way the police mishandled this affair, we shall have to wait some months for any criminal proceedings.
But Johnson’s future as prime minister will not be decided in the courts. As the prime minister himself would wish, he will be judged by his fellow MPs in parliament.
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