Johnson and his UK haters await key ‘Partygate’ report | Economic news
By JILL LAWLESS, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — As he fights for his career, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has a constant refrain: Wait for Sue Gray.
Gray is a senior but previously obscure official who could hold Johnson’s political future in his own hands. She is tasked with investigating allegations that the prime minister and his staff attended parties flouting the lockdown on government property.
Gray is due to report by the end of the month on allegations that government staff held late night parties, “bring your own booze” parties and “wine hour Fridays” as the Britain was under coronavirus restrictions in 2020 and 2021. The allegations sparked public anger, disbelief and mockery, and prompted some members of the ruling Conservative Party to call for Johnson’s resignation.
Last week the Prime Minister issued a contrite and carefully worded apology to Parliament but did not admit to breaking the rules and urged everyone to await Gray’s verdict.
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But Alex Thomas, program director at the Institute for Government think tank, said those expecting the report to “either exonerate the prime minister or damn him” were likely to be disappointed.
“This is a huge political and public issue,” he said. “The Gray report is an important element in finding out what happened. But ultimately it is a judgment call for Tory cabinet ministers and MPs on whether they want Boris Johnson to lead their party and therefore lead the country.
Gray is investigating nearly a dozen alleged gatherings held between May 2020 and April 2021, most of them in the Prime Minister’s office-residence in Downing Street. A celebration took place when people in Britain were banned from socializing or visiting sick relatives in hospitals. Another came on the eve of Prince Philip’s socially distanced funeral, at which the widowed Queen Elizabeth II was forced to sit alone in church.
Johnson acknowledged attending one event, a May 2020 garden party, but said he considered it a work event. But his former senior aide Dominic Cummings, who is now a fierce critic of Johnson, said on Monday the prime minister had been warned the party had broken the rules and lied to parliament in denial.
Gray has access to “all relevant records” and the power to question officials, including Johnson, in his attempt to uncover the facts. The Prime Minister’s Office did not confirm whether Johnson was interviewed by Gray, although Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said Johnson had “submitted” himself to an investigation.
Gray can establish “whether individual disciplinary action is warranted” against officials, and London’s Metropolitan Police say it could open an investigation if it finds evidence of a breach of the law.
Importantly, Gray has limited leeway to censor Johnson. Usually, civil service inquiries make recommendations to the Prime Minister. Here it is the Prime Minister who is under investigation, making Johnson the arbiter of his own punishment.
The investigation is an unusually high-profile mission for a woman used to wielding power behind the scenes. Gray served in both the Labor and Conservative governments for several decades, according to a brief biography on the government’s website, with a hiatus in the 1980s when she ran a pub in Northern Ireland.
As head of ‘property and ethics‘ in the Cabinet Office, she investigated previous allegations of wrongdoing by ministers, including allegations of sexual misconduct against the Deputy Prime Minister of the Damian Green era in 2017, who was forced to resign as a result.
Gray is seen in government as a straight shooter who isn’t afraid to stand up to politicians. But freedom of information activists have criticized its role in protecting government secrets. A previous role was to check the memoirs of officials to ensure no secrets were leaked, and she was accused of blocking freedom of information requests.
Thomas, who knows Gray, said she wouldn’t enjoy the spotlight.
“You don’t usually join the civil service to become a household name,” he said. “That said, he’s a resilient person.”
Johnson’s office says the prime minister “will accept the facts she establishes” but won’t say what action he might take after Gray’s report. He previously ignored a similar civil service inquiry: In 2020, Johnson backed Home Secretary Priti Patel after an inquiry found she had bullied her staff.
British media reported on Monday that the Prime Minister planned to fire senior officials and aides to save his own skin if Gray’s report was critical – a plan dubbed “Operation Save Big Dog”.
Johnson’s spokesman Max Blain dismissed the reports and said he had “never heard that term used”. He also denied the government was rolling out ‘Operation Red Meat’ – launching eye-catching political moves to distract from party demands.
The government has undeniably made a flurry of recent announcements likely to please conservative lawmakers who may waver in their support for Johnson. They include a plan to cut taxpayer support for the BBC; a vow to deploy the army to prevent migrants from crossing the English Channel from France in small boats; and an intention to lift remaining coronavirus restrictions next week.
‘Partygate’ helped the opposition Labor party open a double-digit lead in opinion polls over the Tories. Johnson does not have to face voter judgment before the next general election, scheduled for 2024. But the Conservative Party has a history of ousting leaders once they become passive.
Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, was kicked out in 2019 after failing to secure acceptable divorce terms for Brexit with the European Union. Johnson could suffer the same fate if the party decides his popular appeal – the star quality that has seen him rebound from past scandals – is gone.
Under Conservative rules, a vote of no confidence in the leader can be triggered if 54 party lawmakers write letters asking for it. It’s unclear how many have already been submitted, and so far only a handful of Tory MPs have openly called on Johnson to quit.
Many more are waiting to see what Gray says and how the public reacts.
“There is a real sense of anger and disappointment within the party,” Conservative lawmaker Andrew Bowie told the BBC. “And I think many MPs are therefore grappling with the decisions they may have to make over the next few weeks.”
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