Move along – nothing to see here

Boris Johnson still believes he broke no lockdown rules at Downing Street party

Henry Zeffman www.thetimes.co.uk 

Boris Johnson is “determined” to fight on and still does not believe that he broke any lockdown rules as he braces himself for Sue Gray’s imminent verdict on parties in Downing Street.

The senior civil servant’s report on a series of allegations about rule-breaking in Downing Street during periods of severe coronavirus restrictions is expected to be published this week.

It could prove decisive in determining the fate of Johnson’s faltering premiership, and he is drawing up plans to “own the narrative” afterwards. The vast majority of Britons have already made up their minds about the allegations, regardless of what the report says, polling for The Times has found.

Johnson, who faces allegations that he did not take seriously the case of Nusrat Ghani, who was told she was dismissed as a minister because of her Muslim faith, spent the weekend making calls to Conservative MPs trying to shore up support before Gray’s findings.

“He’s feeling determined,” one loyal MP said. “He genuinely believes that he didn’t break any rules and that he was going to the garden [on May 20, 2020] to say thank you.”

Even Johnson’s allies accept that the report by Gray is likely to make a series of damaging claims about the conduct of people working in Downing Street at the height of the pandemic.

The prime minister’s inner circle — recently bolstered by the return of the MPs who masterminded his 2019 leadership campaign — is preparing to argue that whatever Gray’s findings it would be “disproportionate” for him to resign.

“Clearly there was a culture and clearly that culture was wrong,” one ally said. “But the prime minister was not in No 10 for many of these events, he didn’t know about them, and while it’s perfectly proper to hold the prime minister to account for things that he is responsible for, are we really going to ask the prime minister to resign because some people organised a party that he didn’t know about? It’s an argument about proportion.”

Downing Street is drawing up plans to “own the narrative” of Gray’s report, The Times has been told. Members of Johnson’s team have approached Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, to ask whether Johnson could go to the dispatch box almost immediately after Gray delivers her findings to address MPs, regardless of what business is planned for the Commons at that time.

Johnson’s team is especially keen for him to speak on the same day as the findings are published if the report is critical. “If it’s leaning towards a difficult finding then you don’t want an overnight period for a narrative to build,” a minister said.

Relatively few voters are waiting to read the Gray report to form a view of the issue, according to polling by YouGov for The Times. Fifty-one per cent believe that Johnson should resign as prime minister whatever Gray’s report says, including 26 per cent of people who voted Conservative in 2019. Nineteen per cent think he should remain as prime minister regardless of the findings. Sixteen per cent think that Johnson’s future should depend on what the report says.

Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister, declined to commit the government to publishing Gray’s report in full, saying only that “the substance of the findings” would be released, and that there would be “full transparency” and “full scrutiny”.

Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, said that the report “must be published in its entirety with all accompanying evidence”, adding that Johnson “cannot be allowed to cover up or obscure any of the truth”.

Last night it was reported that Gray had interviewed police officers who guarded Downing Street when the gatherings took place. Members of the Metropolitan Police’s parliamentary and diplomatic protection command provided an account of who entered and left No 10, according to The Daily Telegraph. Gray is said to be in “ongoing dialogue” with the Met about her investigation.

Johnson’s official diary is also said to be among the sources being examined as part of the inquiry. It is understood that Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former chief adviser, is to be interviewed by Gray today.

The Sunday Times revealed that Gray had widened her inquiry to include allegations that parties were held in Johnson’s flat above 11 Downing Street. The paper claimed that two government advisers, Henry Newman and Josh Grimstone, visited the flat on several occasions during lockdowns.