Reports of another Whitehall Christmas party, allegedly attended by Case himself and organised by his office, has seen the Cabinet Secretary step aside from the inquiry into the No.10 Christmas parties. This was the right decision. The office of the Cabinet Secretary is one that has to be both scrupulously impartial and trustworthy and to remain would have risked undermining the authority of any future cabinet secretary inquiries. Though it still begs the question of why he did not step aside from the investigation earlier.
The terms of reference for this ‘inquiry’ were about setting out the facts rather than coming to a judgement about what should happen. The latest revelations only make it more urgent that what has been found out should be made public as soon as possible.
The consequences were always going to be either too political for the cabinet secretary to judge, especially if they concern the prime minister, or about internal discipline, which would not be discussed externally except in the case of resignation. It was therefore, from the start, an uncomfortable inquiry to run, and made more so when Oliver Dowden, the Conservative Party chairman, pre-empted the report by saying that he thought Case’s report would vindicate the prime minister.
This investigation urgently needs to say what did or did not happen to allow the public to make up their own minds. It needs to be full and clear in its answers to restore trust: if he investigation seems to attempt to play down actions or turns out not to be accurate it will do further major damage to the standards systems in government.
The prime minister’s decision to launch an investigation whilst saying that there would be consequences if officials had breached guidance has turned what was primarily a political story into a disciplinary matter with potential police investigation looming over it.
This has put many junior staff who appear to have been part of these events in the line of fire for any consequences. Junior staff should not be made scapegoats. If more senior staff or politicians knew about or attended such parties, even in passing, then it poses the question of why they did not shut them down or whether junior staff assumed they were acceptable. That makes the question of what actions, if any, can be taken against civil servants one that can only be undertaken by the civil service. With cabinet secretary unable to perform that role, then someone else needs to take over. That should be another senior civil servant who is not involved.
Beyond this investigation’s findings, the question of what the prime minister did or did not know is still important. When the stories first broke Johnson’s spokesperson asserted that “Covid rules have been followed at all times”, and the prime minister himself said “all guidance was followed completely in Number 10.” This response raised the stakes. Only when the video of Allegra Stratton emerged did the prime minister’s response change – but even then Johnson has continued to deny knowledge of any party. This is important, and an inquiry into the prime minister’s knowledge of or attendance at any party, or investigations into the prime minister’s or Downing Street’s denials over the last week, also needs to happen. In theory the proper person to adjudicate would be Lord Geidt, as the independent adviser on the ministerial code, but he can only undertake this task if asked by the prime minister and at the moment it is still unclear what Geidt’s response is to revelations that he may have not have been given all the evidence in one of his previous investigations.
The whole issue of parties in No10 has been badly handled from the outset. The way these stories have continued to leak out suggest the government failed to do basic due diligence of establishing the facts when the story first broke. It should have found out if there was any truth to the stories before giving a firm response, but instead Downing Street suggested there was no truth to them or implied that any gathering that did take place did not breach guidance. The continuing flow of leaks now suggests that there is something to answer for and, worse than that, that the atmosphere inside the heart of government is badly damaged. Ensuring that trust is restored should now be a high priority for the way in which this investigation is conducted.