The primary purpose of the investigation was to establish ‘the nature of the gatherings, including attendance, the setting and the purpose, with reference to adherence to the guidance in place at the time’.
But we do not know how much detail the report will include. As some of these events are now subject to a police inquiry, will the published report withhold details that are being investigated further? This matters because the ‘nature of the gatherings’ is crucial to helping MPs make their own judgements.
Key unknowns include whether there are details about gatherings to which the government has admitted that have not yet come out, and whether her report will include gatherings that have not been acknowledged, such as alleged parties or gatherings in the prime minister’s flat.
The Metropolitan Police confirmed, on January 25th, that it would investigate allegations of breaches of Covid regulations on ‘a number of events’. This implies that Gray judged that there was sufficient evidence to suggest that some of the events broke covid-related laws, and referred these to the police. She has had access to lawyers during her investigation who will have provided advice to her on this.
The question is not just whether gatherings broke covid laws, but also government guidance at the time. This includes contemporaneous press conferences and other public statements that formed the basis of the government’s public messaging on gatherings or behaviour.
This could become a more disputed area. The government has repeatedly claimed that some of the reported gatherings were ‘work events’. However, even if Gray says that in her opinion some of the gatherings did not breach guidance or blurred the line of what was allowable under the guidance at the time, they still might not be acceptable to MPs and the public.
To make such judgements MPs need to have as full evidence as possible.
Gray is looking at two aspects of responsibility:
- Who organised and authorised any events?
This question is set out in Gray’s remit. In unpublished advice she will provide the civil service and prime minister with her thoughts on individual disciplinary action that should be taken towards any officials or advisers.
- What about the wider circumstances or ‘underlying culture’?
Gray may also discuss whether there is a ‘drinking culture’ in No10, and whether the political and civil service leadership of No10 facilitated such a culture. Was rule-breaking frowned upon sufficiently? Was management of staff prioritised enough? Did the culture, from the prime minister down, allow people to speak up and challenge when they thought behaviour was inappropriate?
Given the prime minister’s answers to parliament and in the media, it matters whether the prime minister knew about gatherings at the time, and whether he was warned or should have known they broke or might be seen as having broken covid rules. The prime minister’s answer about the 20 May 2020 event is a particular focus: the prime minister has said that he viewed it as a work event. Unknowns include: whether Gray will take a judgement about evidence given, or simply record it? Will she discuss the “plausibility” of such answers – as happened in the Damian Green investigation? Or will she not refer to it at all?
What she says about what Johnson knew could be key in enabling MPs to form judgements about whether or not the prime minister knowingly misled parliament. This is another reason why the report needs to be published as fully as possible, so that MPs can decide whether to accept Johnson’s defence.
Throughout the course of the Gray inquiry there have been leaks about further gatherings – beyond the initial three for which the inquiry was set up. It is relevant for the public to understand whether Gray was proactively made aware of all the gatherings on which she reports, or only found out about them through press leaks. It matters for confidence in her inquiry whether she was given full access and full compliance or whether she was ‘blindsided’ by new allegations as one press report suggested.