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LONDON – One Update from the official request in allegations by lockdown-busting parties in Boris Johnson’s government has found “a serious failure” in meeting the standards expected of the government.
Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, has been asked to investigate a number of allegations that social gatherings were being held at No 10 Downing Street in breach of COVID-19 rules.
In her 12-page update – truncated while the Metropolitan Police investigate some of the allegations separately – Gray noted that “too little thought was given to what was happening across the country” as she considered whether some of the events should have happened.
Johnson told his troubled Conservative MPs on Monday he was “sorry” – and vowed to learn lessons. But his Tory predecessor Theresa May was among those who shot at the embattled Prime Minister.
Gray’s update comes amid controversy after Met police – who were handed evidence found during Gray’s investigation – requested a “minimal reference” to allegations from gatherings it is currently investigating to include in the report.
The senior official said the Met’s intervention meant she was now “extremely limited in what I can say about these events,” and she acknowledged that it “is not possible at this time to produce a meaningful report that captures the extensive Presents and analyzes factual information that I have been able to gather.”
However, she made it clear that given the high level of public interest, she “did not want to wait until the police investigation was completed before publishing anything”.
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Gray targeted “errors of leadership and judgment by various parts of No. 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times,” noting that “some of the events should not have happened” and others “should not have unfolded as they did.”
She also criticized a drinking culture in parts of Whitehall, saying: “The excessive consumption of alcohol is never appropriate in a professional workplace.”
Gray called for “significant findings” as a result of the scandal – and said they don’t have to wait for the outcome of the police investigation.
While Gray made clear the limitations of Monday’s report, the ongoing police investigation could prove damaging to the prime minister.
Of 16 parties examined by Gray, only four failed to reach the threshold for criminal investigation.
One of the incidents police are investigating took place at the Downing Street flat, the home of the Prime Minister and his wife Carrie, on the day his former chief adviser Dominic Cummings was sacked.
Johnson: “I understand and I will fix it”
In response to Monday’s question in the House of Commons, Johnson apologized and said he accepted the need for changes as a result of Gray’s findings. Some of his most senior MPs were quick to signal that this would not be enough.
Johnson announced the creation of an “Office of the Prime Minister” and promised further improvements in the way No. 10 and the Cabinet Office are run.
“I understand and I will fix it,” he insisted.
But the Prime Minister faced “calls for his resignation” from opposition MPs as he told the House of Commons: “We have asked the people of this country to make the most extraordinary sacrifices – not to meet loved ones, not to visit relatives before they die, and I understand the anger people feel.”
If 54 of Johnson’s fellow MPs write a letter to party leaders, it will trigger a vote of confidence in his Tory leadership.
In a highly charged Commons intervention, May, Johnson’s immediate predecessor at No. 10, said the coronavirus regulations had severely restricted the public, which “had the right to expect that their prime minister had read the rules and understood the meaning of the rules and to set an example by following these rules.”
“What the Gray report shows is that No 10 Downing Street failed to comply with the regulations they had imposed on the public,” she added.
And veteran Conservative Andrew Mitchell, a former cabinet minister who previously backed Johnson, said he could no longer support the prime minister. “I am deeply concerned by these events and indeed very concerned by some of the things he said from that shipping box and to the British public and our constituents,” Mitchell said.
Aaron Bell, a Tory MP who was not among the few who publicly called for Johnson to step down, recalled attending his grandmother’s funeral in May 2020 and being unable to meet his family due to lockdown restrictions to hug or attend a reception afterwards.
“Does the Prime Minister think I’m a fool?” asked Bell.
Ian Blackford, the leader of the Scottish National Party in Westminster, was even thrown out of the House of Commons after refusing to retract an allegation that Johnson had misled Parliament. Under British parliamentary rules, MPs are not allowed to accuse each other of lying.
Opposition Labor leader Keir Starmer again called for Johnson to step down, branded the Prime Minister a “man without shame” and said he had “insulted the public intelligence” in his response to the claims.
“This can only get worse”
A former minister, who claimed he has yet to table a letter of no confidence, said the report’s findings were not helpful to No 10.
“It’s quite difficult to find anything positive about it [for the PM]. I guess they were hoping [Gray] would be much more helpful and it’s difficult to read in that context,” they added. “My feeling is that it can only get worse from here.”
A normally loyal Conservative MP said the report offered Johnson no reprieve. “There’s a police investigation into the activities at No. 10, for Christ’s sake. How come?”
Annabelle Dickson contributed to the coverage. This story has been updated to include reactions and reports on Johnson’s Commons statement.