Simon Case’s aborted investigation was never the right approach to investigating the Downing Street party row. Sue Gray’s inquiry may now tell us what happened. Her report won’t, however, settle the issue – and is likely to show, yet again, how the systems that govern government standards are in desperate need of reform.
Gray’s report is set to be a largely factual account about parties that were held in Downing Street. It may not assign individual blame but might refer disciplinary action to others. It may touch on the role of the prime minister, but it isn’t Gray’s place to judge his behaviour. The bare facts alone could prove deeply damaging, and how she sets them out, and the language used, may indicate her view on the seriousness of what has happened and the wider culture that allowed it to happen.
But this is still a deeply invidious position for the civil service to find itself in. Even before the latest revelation, No.10’s initial denials and the prime minister’s response in the Commons, followed by more and more leaks of more and more details about lockdown parties, had already raised the stakes to a point where the prime minister’s political future was being questioned. However independent and brave Gray herself may be, it is very uncomfortable for the civil service to have to conduct an investigation that touches on the actions of the prime minister. If the report fails to satisfy the court of public opinion, and is seen to obfuscate or play down matters or proves inaccurate, Gray – and the civil service – will face criticism, and the cabinet secretary will face the difficult task of restoring morale and perhaps reputation. Given that Gray’s report may touch on his own role in sanctioning parties, Simon Case will – whether after Gray reports or next time he faces a select committee – face some hard questions about how this happened on his watch. Whatever Gray concludes, partygate does not end with her report.
Whether Johnson was accurate in his denials is not as important as his failure to take responsibility
At the heart of the problem with Gray’s inquiry is the prime minister. It is not Sue Gray’s place to judge whether Boris Johnson misled the House of Commons. His ministerial code rightly says that it "is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity". Determining whether the facts in Gray’s report mean that the prime minister has breached the code should be the remit of Lord Geidt, the adviser on ministerial interests. But he has not yet been asked to look into the matter and cannot do so except at the prime minister’s request. In any case, by now such an inquiry may be superfluous. MPs, Johnson’s party, and the wider public, already waiting for Gray’s report, are unlikely to want to wait for another inquiry when they have so many leaked emails and videos to look at when forming their own judgement on Johnson’s leadership.
Johnson might argue that when he told the House of Commons he knew nothing about the alleged parties – saying that he had received "repeated assurances" that guidance wasn’t breached – he was being asked about December parties, not May 2020. But that isn’t the point. The ministerial code is not a courtroom document where technicalities matter in your defence – it is a statement of the ethical standards that underpin our government. Ultimately, Johnson will be judged by his peers, his party and the voting public – where polls and by-elections suggest it is already having an effect. They will not be assessing him on whether his defence is watertight, but on his leadership during a national crisis in the face of massive public anger and accusations of hypocrisy.
The handling of this investigation has shown up the major problems in the UK government’s system of standards. The government has lauded the ‘independence’ of a civil service investigation, but this is inaccurate. Impartial civil servants that serve the government of the day cannot be the right people to investigate allegations of prime ministerial wrongdoing. However, the one person who does have licence to judge the most senior ministers in the government, Lord Geidt, does not have the power to launch his own inquiry. An independent adviser with statutory backing could have jumped into the issue, ensuring the civil service could stay focused on its own actions.
But whether led by Gray or by Geidt, no investigation can decide what the consequences should be for ministers – up to and including the prime minister, these are always politically determined. Whether it is through another urgent question, PMQs or the prime minister coming to the House, it is likely MPs will find an opportunity to debate Gray’s report – though there is no fixed mechanism for a vote. Conservative MPs will be looking at both Gray’s report, but also how the prime minister responds himself.
It is the prime minister who is accountable for No.10’s code of conduct, whatever part individual officials or advisers took in organising parties. Whatever Sue Gray finds about what parties were held, it is Boris Johnson who must deal with the hangover.