LONDON — An investigation of Downing Street parties held while coronavirus restrictions were in place found that some of the gatherings showed “a serious failure” to observe the standards expected of government officials and the British population.
But the version of the highly anticipated report published Monday did not put an end to the months-long “Partygate” scandal or deliver Prime Minister Boris Johnson from its cloud.
The report provided little detail about 16 reported parties at the British prime minister’s residence and office and at other government buildings, because 12 of the gatherings, on eight different dates, are now the subject of a criminal investigation by London’s Metropolitan Police.
The police said in a statement that they are working “at pace” and reviewing more than 300 images and more than 500 pages of information.
Johnson, who has been fighting for his political life, told Parliament on Monday, “I get it, and I will fix it.” He then made vague promises to reorganize 10 Downing Street.
“I know what the issue is,” Johnson continued. “It’s whether this government can be trusted to deliver. And I say, Mr. Speaker, yes, we can be trusted.” He proceeded to review his government’s record on Brexit and its handling of the pandemic.
Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, noted that Johnson attended at least two of the parties being investigated by police — one in the garden at Downing Street on May 20, 2020, and another in his apartment on Nov. 13, 2020.
“There can be no doubt that the prime minister himself is now subject to criminal investigation,” Starmer said.
Last month in Parliament, Johnson was asked if he would say whether there had been a party on Nov. 13, 2020. “No, but I’m sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times,” Johnson said.
Johnson has faced criticism not only from the opposition but from within his Conservative Party.
Theresa May, Johnson’s predecessor, gave a blistering assessment Monday: “What the Gray report does show is that Number 10 Downing Street was not observing the regulations they had imposed on members of the public. So either my right honorable friend had not read the rules or didn’t understand what they meant, and others around him, or they didn’t think the rules applied to Number 10. Which was it?”
Johnson contested May’s description of the report and batted away May’s question. “I suggest she awaits to see the conclusion of the inquiry,” Johnson countered.
Police requested that the Gray report include only “minimal reference” to the events their officers were investigating, to “avoid any prejudice to our investigation.” That meant what was released Monday was brief and general.
The report, which Gray called “an update,” did not describe what happened at the gatherings, who organized them, nor who attended.
Because of the ongoing police investigation, Gray wrote, “I am extremely limited in what I can say about those events and it is not possible at present to provide a meaningful report setting out and analysing the extensive factual information I have been able to gather.”
Ian Blackford, a lawmaker from the Scottish National Party, was dripping with sarcasm: “The long-awaited Sue Gray report — what a farce! It was carefully engineered to be a fact-finding exercise with no conclusions. And now we find it’s a fact-finding exercise with no facts.”
Gray, however, said her team carried out interviews with over 70 individuals and examined emails, WhatsApp messages, text messages, photographs and building entry and exit logs.
Gray was able to say that “Against the backdrop of the pandemic, when the Government was asking citizens to accept far-reaching restrictions on their lives, some of the behaviour surrounding these gatherings is difficult to justify.”
Gray concluded that “a number of these gatherings should not have been allowed to take place or to develop in the way that they did.”
Two of the parties at Downing Street, on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral, prompted the prime minister’s office to apologize to Queen Elizabeth II. Johnson also half-apologized for attending a “bring your own booze” garden party, saying he was there only briefly. Otherwise, Downing Street has maintained that the gatherings were work-related.
Many Conservative lawmakers had said they were waiting to see the Gray report, presumably the full one with more details, before deciding whether to attempt to oust Johnson. The key questions: Did the British prime minister break the law? Who was responsible for the gatherings? Did Johnson have advance knowledge of the “bring your own booze” party? Were there get-togethers in the Johnsons’ apartment? What new details about various gatherings has Gray uncovered?
To trigger a leadership challenge in the Conservative Party, 54 Conservative members of Parliament would have to submit letters of no confidence to the chair of the 1922 Committee, made up of backbench party members. At least seven lawmakers have publicly said they have submitted letters, but more may have done so privately.
The whole scandal has been “a terribly damaging episode for trust in the government, the ability of the government to police itself and, more broadly, in the police themselves,” said Will Jennings, a politics expert at the University of Southampton.
The police have been criticized for not moving earlier to investigate the allegations about Downing Street parties — and for allowing one set of rules for the people and another for the powerful.
More than 100,000 people have been fined since the start of the pandemic for breaking coronavirus restrictions in England and Wales. Those who held small gatherings were fined 100 pounds, or $134. For groups of 30 or more, the penalty was 10,000 pounds, or $13,400.
Police signaled Monday that government staffers could face fines, with an opportunity to appeal, if the investigation determines “regulations have been breached without a reasonable excuse.”
Being under the cloud of a criminal investigation is hardly good for Johnson.
Tony Blair, who served as British prime minister from 1997 to 2007, was questioned by police in what became known as the “cash for peerages” scandal. Blair was never charged, but the episode cast a shadow over the final months of his premiership.