Judgment of Johnson should not be a Gray area

Boris Johnson defends himself at Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament. Photo credit: BBC News

As revelations about lockdown-breaching government parties continue to create outrage both inside and outside Parliament, we are urged by cabinet ministers – and Boris Johnson himself –  to wait for Sue Gray’s inquiry before passing judgment on the prime minister. 

Her report is expected to reveal a “farcical culture of drinking and socialising” at 10 Downing Street. But it is unlikely to provide the smoking gun that Johnson’s critics expect. For this very simple reason: it was not set up to investigate the prime minister himself. 

It is worth reminding ourselves of how this story has spiralled – well beyond the terms of the initial investigation – since rumours of parties first emerged at the end of last year.

When cabinet secretary Simon Case was originally appointed in December to investigate reports of an illegal Christmas party, prime minister Boris Johnson told Parliament that he had asked Case “to establish all the facts and to report back as soon as possible,” adding that if rules were broken “then there will be disciplinary action for all those involved”. 

What lockdown breaches?

In other words, the point of the investigation was to inform Johnson himself about any potential rule breaches. At the time, Johnson was still maintaining that he had no knowledge of lockdown breaches, telling Parliament “​​I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing No 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures”.

Case later quit the inquiry, following reports that he had been present at a different Christmas party, and Sue Gray was appointed in his place. 

Gray is a career civil servant whose most influential job was leading the government’s Propriety and Ethics team. At that stage, her remit was to investigate civil servants working at Downing Street, not the prime minister himself. The inquiry was still to all intents and purposes an HR matter, and in that light, Gray was the perfect person for the job.

That all changed on Wednesday, when Johnson admitted being present at a party in the Downing Street garden during the first lockdown in May 2020. As others have noted, the fact that Johnson is implicated in the events Gray is investigating puts her in an impossible position.

It is plainly inappropriate for a civil servant to make a judgment about whether an elected prime minister should resign. Gray cannot and will not do so, and the expectation is that she will focus on the wrongdoings of civil servants and government aides. Steven Swinford, of The Times, reports that while some aides will face disciplinary hearings, Gray is unlikely to find evidence of criminality, and will do no more than censure Johnson for his role in attending the party.

Open and shut case?

If Swinford is right, allies of Johnson will almost certainly claim that the matter is therefore closed. Expect to hear much cynical talk of “moving on”. 

But this ignores Sue Gray’s original remit. Her job is not to identify criminality: that is the job of the Metropolitan police. Her job is not to judge the prime minister: she works for him, after all. 

The original point of the inquiry was simply to identify rule-breaking civil servants. That is all that Gray can reasonably be expected to do: it was all she was asked to do in the first place. 

Now that the prime minister is personally implicated in potential breaches of the rules, he should be judged, not by a civil servant who reports to him, but by the elected MPs upon whose support in Parliament he depends, and in the court of public opinion. His involvement in lockdown breaches should not be, and has never been, a Gray area.

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