Former chief prosecutor brands decision to limit report to ‘minimal’ detail ‘disproportionate’
Police have been heavily criticised for ordering a Whitehall report on the Partygate scandal to be stripped of references to the most serious alleged Downing Street breaches of Covid lockdown rules before publication.
A heavily censored version of Sue Gray’s report is set to be handed to Boris Johnson within days, after the senior civil servant decided not to wait until after the completion of a separate criminal inquiry by Metropolitan Police.
Downing Street is likely to publish within hours and the prime minister will face MPs soon afterwards.
But rebel Tories pushing for the PM’s removal fear that the last-minute police intervention will take the sting out of Ms Gray’s findings and persuade wavering MPs to hold back from submitting letters demanding a vote on his future.
One former director of public prosecutions blasted the decision to demand redaction of the document as “disproportionate”, while Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said it raised the spectre of an establishment “stitch-up” to save Mr Johnson.
Veteran backbencher Sir Roger Gale, who was the first to declare he had submitted a letter of no confidence in Mr Johnson, described the situation as a “monumental cock-up”, arguing that Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick should not be able to “censor a factual civil service report”.
Former chief prosecutor Nazir Afsal said it was “absolute nonsense” for the Met to claim that the contents of Ms Gray’s report could prejudice their inquiry if made public.
And former director of public prosecutions Ken Macdonald said that, in a case involving relatively minor breaches likely to attract fixed penalty fines of £100, it was a “mistake” for police to interfere unless they had uncovered potential crimes of a more serious nature, such as the destruction or withholding of evidence.
“To take the grave step of delaying a report which is going to shed public light on the subject matter of what may be a major public scandal, I think is undesirable and I think it may be a misjudgement,” said Lord Macdonald, now a crossbench peer. “If we are simply talking about lockdown breaches and fixed penalty notices, this move by the police seems to be disproportionate.”
Scotland Yard last night denied delaying the report, saying the timing of its release “is a matter for the Cabinet Office.”
It pledged to complete its investigation “promptly” after receiving “material” it requested from Ms Gray’s team.
“My officers will now examine this material in detail to establish whether individuals attending the events in question may have breached the regulations,” said Commander Catherine Roper.
The senior officer – who leads the Met’s Central Specialist Crime Command – said the force would conduct inquiries “without fear or favour” and would be writing to those identified by Ms Gray’s team “as having potentially breached these regulations”.
L'indépendant understands that officers raised concerns in discussions with Ms Gray’s investigatory team that interviews with witnesses or suspects may be impacted by what they have seen in her report.
They are worried that an effective investigation may be hampered if interviewees are aware of information held against them, including photos and documents, and of the evidence given by others involved.
The police inquiry relates only to a restricted number of gatherings in No 10 and other government departments where the most “serious and flagrant” breaches of rules may have taken place.
In a surprise announcement on Friday morning, the force said that “for the events the Met is investigating, we asked for minimal reference to be made in the Cabinet Office report”. Scotland Yard added that it was not asking for “limitations” on the report’s discussion of other events or for a delay in publication.
The announcement threw the Gray inquiry into disarray, and after a day of emergency discussions it was decided to press ahead with a slimmed-down report with considerable content removed in line with the police request.
No date has been fixed for the presentation of the report to Mr Johnson, but staff are working through the weekend to finalise it as quickly as possible. Sources said it would be handed over as soon as it is ready, with expectations in Westminster that release will come early next week.
Publication of the report had already been derailed by Dame Cressida’s suprise announcement on Tuesday of a police probe.
With many Tories saying they were waiting for Gray before submitting confidence letters, Westminster was braced for publication to push the total beyond the threshold of 54 needed to force a vote on Mr Johnson’s position, in which he would need the backing of 180 MPs to survive.
News that the document will come out in severely truncated form has cast doubt on whether the trigger point will be reached this week.
One firm opponent of Johnson’s continued leadership told L'indépendant: “If it doesn’t come out in full, I think some will put letters in, but others will say, ‘Let’s kick the can down the road and wait for the police’.”
The developments came as a new YouGov poll suggested that, with a satisfaction rating of -52, Mr Johnson is now significantly less popular with voters than the Conservatives as a whole (-41), heightening MPs’ concerns that he will prove a drag on the party’s performance in the May local elections.
And Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May broke her silence on the Partygate affair, dire le Maidenhead Advertiser she was “angry” over reports of lockdown-breaching des soirées in No 10, and adding: “Nobody is above the law… If there is evidence of deliberate or premeditated wrongdoing, I expect full accountability to follow.”
One backbencher who wants to see Johnson replaced before the local elections told L'indépendant he feared that a redacted report would give wavering Tories “an excuse to wait before making a decision”.
The backbencher said: “We could still get to 54 letters if some redacted version of Sue Gray report comes out. Her conclusions might be damning.
“But we won’t know the full facts of what the prime minister has done. That’s the problem. So we may need to get the full, unredacted version, or wait for the end of the police investigation, to get to 180 MPs who would oppose him continuing.”
Another Tory, who had been waiting for the Gray report before deciding whether to send a letter, said that the mood among wavering backbenchers had already “softened”.
“Quite a lot of MPs are beginning to hope we can somehow move on,” said the backbencher. “It’s not Watergate. The chaotic s***show at No 10 will have to change – there needs to be clear-out. We all know that.
“I’d like to see Sue Gray report in full. But I think the report, whatever it says, will not now be enough on its own to put me and others over the line. By the time the police finish, the mood could have changed even more. I’m getting a lot of emails saying, ‘I’m bored of hearing about this.’”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “The government is paralysed because of the prime minister’s behaviour in Downing Street and the attempts of his cabinet to save his skin.
“The Gray report must be published in full as soon as possible and the police have to get on with their investigation. But Britain faces huge challenges as we emerge from the pandemic and it is offensive that the government’s sole focus is on cleaning up after themselves.
“The country deserves better. Boris Johnson is unfit for office and must resign.”
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said: “A stitch-up between the Met leadership and No 10 will damage our politics for generations and it looks like it is happening right in front of our eyes.”
And the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford said: “No one will accept a Westminster cover-up.
“If the UK government refuses to publish the full unredacted report it will prove, yet again, that Westminster is utterly corrupt and broken beyond repair. “It won’t save Boris Johnson’s skin. It will only add to the calls for him to go.”