Tory MPs should reflect on Boris Johnson’s character if they want him to lead them

“The events that I investigated were attended by leaders in government. Many of these events should not have been allowed to happen … The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture.” (Ms Gray)

www.independent.co.uk 

Rarely has a report by a civil servant been so eagerly awaited. For five months, ministers and Conservative backbenchers have deflected questions about Boris Johnson’s future by saying they were “waiting for Sue Gray”.

When she delivered her 37-page report about Partygate on Wednesday, Ms Gray gave Tory MPs plenty to think about and handed them plenty of bullets; they should use them rather than continue to put off their big decision about the prime minister.

Ms Gray said: “The events that I investigated were attended by leaders in government. Many of these events should not have been allowed to happen … The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture.”

Mr Johnson’s allies will be relieved Ms Gray did not produce new revelations about his involvement in the Downing Street parties. But she paints a damning picture of a partying and drinking culture, which repeatedly breached the Covid laws the participants had imposed on a public that made huge sacrifices in obeying them.

Inside No 10, officials were worried about the optics of their parties: one spoke of a “comms risk”.  A key figure in this sorry saga is Martin Reynolds, the prime minister’s former principal private secretary, who told a colleague “we seem to have got away with” a party in the garden. Mr Reynolds has left No 10 under the shake-up trumpeted by Mr Johnson and praised by Ms Gray. But he has returned to the Foreign Office and is likely to land a plum ambassadorial post. That would hardly be the senior civil service taking “responsibility” for this scandal in the way Ms Gray rightly wishes to see.

Similarly, in his Commons statement, the prime minister accepted “full responsibility”, insisting he was “humbled” and had learnt lessons. But he did not display the contrition the occasion demanded and the report deserved. Instead, he told MPs he was “as surprised and disappointed as anyone else” by the revelations because (like Macavity the cat) he was “simply not there” because he had already left before “subsequent proceedings” took place.

He had the temerity to claim that his view he was attending work events had been “vindicated” because he had been fined only for a single event – his birthday gathering in the Cabinet Room. The Gray report offers no such vindication and Tory MPs should remember that.

At his press conference, Mr Johnson refused to speculate on disciplinary action against individuals. As Ms Gray hinted, it would be wrong if very junior officials were thrown under the bus. Some of those fined attended parties because their superiors, and the prime minister, were there. Some owned up to attending parties to Ms Gray on the basis that there would not be a police investigation, and then found their evidence handed to Scotland Yard.

Johnson’s handling of the inquiry’s publication has been woeful and has further damaged him. It was crass for his so-called friends to claim the widely respected Ms Gray was “playing politics” and “enjoying the limelight a little too much”. The claims are baseless. Downing Street was wrong to insist she asked for a meeting with Mr Johnson to discuss her forthcoming report – it was later admitted that No 10 requested it.

Tory MPs should reflect on his character as they decide whether they want Mr Johnson to lead them into the next general election. A majority of backbenchers sit uncomfortably in a middle group that wants neither to defend Mr Johnson nor to depose him. So the completion of this act of the Partygate drama is not the end of the affair as he would wish.

Mr Johnson now faces an inquiry by the Commons privileges committee into whether he knowingly misled parliament by arguing that the rules had been upheld at all times. The “knowingly” caveat on when resignations should happen under the ministerial code might save him, but he first has a lot more questions to answer.

If Tory MPs continue to lack the courage to move against Mr Johnson now, the final Partygate inquiry could yet prove his biggest hurdle. If the Commons judges that he knowingly misled MPs, even his much-vaunted ability to defy political gravity would be tested to the limit.

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