Sue Gray’s report is damning about the culture and structure of No.10 but has been so circumscribed by the Met Police that it presents the prime minister only with embarrassment that he may well survive – at least for now.
At just five and a half pages of substantial content, and shorn of judgement and detail on individual events, Sue Gray’s report may lack the heft that was at first expected. But all the same, it was damning about the culture, lack of leadership, lack of organisation and poor decisions within Number 10 Downing Street. It does not say so in stark terms but that criticism extends most of all to the prime minister.
The hardest kernels, greatest surprise and perhaps greatest contribution of her report is in listing incontrovertibly 16 gatherings which took place, some of which were not publicly known before the report’s publication. The Met Police has found grounds to investigate 12 of them, she says.
Her catalogue of cultural offences and poor judgements is the most damning. She has set out a list of failure to observe the high standards expected of government, failure to appreciate the sacrifices of the rest of the country, excessive consumption of alcohol inappropriate in any part of professional life and a fearfulness of junior staff in challenging decisions. This is a deeply unattractive litany. All the same, she stops short of saying that any single gathering broke the law and so did the people who went to it.
The prime minister may talk his way out of it for now. The past few days have lifted the cloud of apparently imminent rebellion in the party that seemed to be deciding his fate. The greatest danger for him will be if he can be said to have misled Parliament. One of the gatherings apparently being investigated by the police was held in the prime minister’s Downing Street flat, although he said no such event took place. “Failures of leadership” is the most resonant phrase which he will have to rebut – because who is at fault, she is effectively saying, if not the overall leader? “I get it and I will fix it” he said to parliament after the report’s publication. He will have to show that he does.
The coolly damning tone of the report may also prove enduringly awkward for him, however. In describing the disconnect between No.10’s culture and the sacrifices undergone by the whole population after the government had imposed lockdown rules, the report strikes at the heart of what has made people so furious. Gray shuts down the defence that Downing Street staff “were working long hours” by acknowledging that “those challenges also applied to key workers”.
Much now passes to the Metropolitan Police. It is impossible to defend the recent decisions of Dame Cressida Dick, commissioner of the Met. She first decided that the force would not investigate, as this would be retrospective; then allowed Gray to do the heavy lifting while keeping in touch; having established through Gray’s work that there was indeed apparent evidence of illegality worth investigating. In doing so, it effectively filleted the Gray report of its weightiest material by asking it to be withheld until its own investigation was finished.
The burden is on the Met now not only to come up with a full account but to explain its actions. It has made clear that it is not normal to publish the names of those deemed to be subject to fines. But this will not do much to pacify the cross party incredulity and exasperation at the Met’s behaviour. The force should recognise the degree of public interest in the detailed account and the information that parliament needs to hold government to account and publish as much detail as would have been in the Gray report. If not, the Gray report as originally drafted and ready last week should eventually be published in full.
The report is awkward for the civil service although much less than it might have been. Gray does not name names, junior (as no such report would be expected to do) or senior. She makes clear – and this is a concern of hers that predates this investigation – how the sheer size of the staff supporting the prime minister in No.10 and the Cabinet Office, which has grown enormously in recent years, leads to chaos and lack of structured control. Junior staff’s fearfulness in protesting against the culture needs to be addressed; as she says, no need to wait for the Met to report to begin reform. The prime minister yesterday said he would restructure the staff supporting him; that is necessary, but is not likely to quell public anger.
The investigation process itself has not come out well from this episode. This was too great a burden to give to one civil servant, in effect asked to pronounce on whether her boss, the prime minister, had broken the law. Her inability always to address that question was always going to lead to dissatisfaction. The answer is for such investigations to be carried out by an independent investigator with the power to initiate such inquiries, and to report then to parliament.
But for all those weaknesses, she has managed to assemble a powerful accusation of poor leadership. That lies at the prime minister’s door. It is now up to him to respond.