With each day that passes Sue Gray’s investigation into lockdown parties seems to gain more prominence. It is the only – holding – answer that Conservative ministers and MPs can give to questions about government rule-breaking. And as the conduct of civil servants comes into the spotlight Gray’sfact-finding will determine which officials get disciplined. But there is too much focus and expectation being loaded onto Gray’s report.
As a civil servant Gray is impartial but is not leading an independent inquiry. While she will set out the facts as she is able to establish them and may be able to point to rule-breaking, there is likely to be enough ambiguity about her conclusions to allow both the prime minister’s critics and his defenders to make their case. Even after the report’s findings are published MPs will still have to exercise their judgement.Number 10’s media managers know this as their pre-briefing, by suggesting that Gray needs to find evidence of criminal behaviour, sets up a hurdle that the report cannot hope to meet.
Contesting the outcome of the report is beside the point. From what has already been admitted, the prime minister and a number of senior civil servants will be deeply regretting their casual approach to the rules. And the point of an ethical code in government is less to be the text for prosecution and defence to make their cases than to give the public confidence that the government is acting honestly and in pursuit of thepublic interest. On lockdown parties, the electorate has already seen enough to make up its mind.
From what we already know there is plenty of blame to go round, and the prime minister does not seem to be the only culprit. Lax civil service standards in No10 must be investigated and misjudgements and rule-breaking disciplined, as should be the case in any professional organisation. A sharp reminder that the civil service code requires officials to “always act in a way that is professional and that deserves and retains the confidence of all those with whom you have dealings” would be in order.
But if Johnson decides to explicitly or implicitly blame others to shore up his position he is making a mistake. For all the failings of others, it is the prime minister’s leadership that is being tested and the electorate will expect him to take responsibility. And if he purges his team to save himself then in future Downing Street will be a place of back-covering, recrimination and disorder.
So despite repeat ministerial insistence that Gray will provide the answers, her conclusions are far from the main factor MPs should consider when pondering the future of the prime minister.
Conservative MPs will recall Johnson’s huge 2019 election victory, that in less turbulent times would be enough to insulate him from resignation demands. They will acknowledge that it took his uncompromising tactics to deal with the Brexit impasse. They might feel his upbeat style is what the country will want after a devastating pandemic.
But they will also know that if Johnson does survive, partygate will mean that he has less control over the next phase of his government than the last. A shakeup of the Number 10 team or a succession of policy relaunches will not be enough to restore public confidence if they have made up their mind about the man in charge. A weakened prime minister is less likely to be able to set direction for the government or to resolve disagreements between ministers. Johnson already appears to have lost control of his party in Scotland. He will find it even harder to make progress on levelling up. Noises off from backbenchers unhappy about net zero, existing or new Covid measures or economic policy will become difficult to resist.
Over the coming weeks Conservative MPs will be weighing up all these factors. It may be that more revelations seal Boris Johnson’s fate, or that the prime minister’s political skills allow him to break free from the scandals that have been closing in for months. Whatever happens, the issues at play go far wider than one report from one civil servant. MPs would do well to remember that.
Alex Thomas was from 2016-18 principal private secretary to Sir Jeremy Heywood, cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, and worked with Sue Gray and Sir Jeremy on ministerial code investigations during that period.