Prime Minister Boris Johnson is managing the partygate crisis rather well – under the circumstances, in any case for now. Just as the civil servant Sue Gray was ready to submit her inquiry report, enter the police to announce that they too are launching an investigation and that Sue Gray must not include in the report what they want to be kept out of it.
The Sue Gray report was widely believed to be strongly critical of the leadership at 10 Downing Street. She has a formidable reputation as a stickler for correct conduct. And all the parties at the Prime Minister’s office through the lockdown have self-evidently been far from correct.
The PM has apologised in parliament – but only because he says he can understand that people will think they do even if he has done no wrong. In effect, they would see gatherings over wine, cheese, and cake as parties, but he does not.
The police have refused through months of reports surfacing about this party and that to carry out an investigation. A day before Sue Gray was due to submit her report, they announced an investigation. The day her report was expected to be submitted, they said she must not include in her inquiry what they are investigating. The ostensible reason was that they want some information withheld so as not to prejudice their inquiry.
The consequence is of course that a great deal of the content dug out by Sue Gray has now effectively been smothered. She will either have to submit a part report or not submit a report at all. So far she has followed the latter course.
“A stitch-up between the Met leadership and Number 10 will damage our politics for generations and it looks like it is happening right in front of our eyes,” Liberal Democrats leader Sir Ed Davey tweeted.
“I’m worried about any growing perception of a stitch-up, it’s pretty dangerous,” he later told Sky News. “The Met (the London police) recently said they will not retrospectively investigate this issue. Then they said they might, but that they will read the Sue Gray report after it’s been published, then they changed for a third time, that they will investigate, but Sue Gray should publish in full first, and then they changed their minds again at the last minute. And therefore we now have this long delay before the Sue Gray report is published. It’s an utter fiasco.”
No. 10, he said, “has behaved appallingly, we all know that, and these delays just make it seem a lot worse”.
These delays in publishing reports when they have been completed for days are worrying people, he said, and “are beginning to sound alarm bells around the whole country”.
Ian Blackford, leader of the Scottish National Party in Westminster, said there has been “collusion” between the Met police and the Cabinet office. “This does look as if it’s a stitch-up and the only person who benefits from that is Boris Johnson.”
The first benefit for Boris Johnson is to gain time. He has been doing all he can to divert attention from those parties. He has been talking Ukraine to summon principled nationalism, he has eased Covid restrictions, he has been talking up new trade opportunities with India to demonstrate the success of Brexit.
It has long been a tradition that the police in Britain stay politically neutral. But many are now beginning to raise questions about that other beneficiary through these delays – Home Secretary Priti Patel. She is an emphatically unpopular figure in the country and her party, and she has held her place primarily, and many in the party believe only, due to the support of the Prime Minister. If Boris Johnson goes, that could spell the end of her political career.
As Home Secretary, she is in charge of the police forces. A police decision to launch an investigation now and to seal facts from public view could hardly have been taken without a degree of active intervention from her.
The traditional view is that public memory is short, and that people will soon put these partygate stories behind them. Given the growing public anger over the parties and now the government handling of the reports into them, the traditional view may well turn out to be wrong.