MPs and voters will determine whether the prime minister survives, but Bronwen Maddox says Boris Johnson has damaged the standing of his government and public faith in his leadership
It is impossible to rebut the picture that Sue Gray has painted in her report, or her conclusions. At a time of collective sacrifice across the country, Boris Johnson took part in repeated social gatherings in 10 Downing Street which were “not in line with Covid guidance at the time.” The prime minister attended events which broke his own government’s rules and seemed to encourage others to do so, or at least implied that he consented. Above all, he fostered a culture within Downing Street and among civil servants and advisers that the rules did not apply to them. Some senior officials joined in or at least tolerated this approach.
As Gray writes, “even allowing for the extraordinary pressures officials and advisers were under, the factual findings of this report illustrate some attitudes and behaviours inconsistent with that guidance.” She rightly concludes that “many will be dismayed that behaviour of this kind took place on this scale at the heart of Government. The public have a right to expect the very highest standards of behaviour in such places and clearly what happened fell well short of this.”
The prime minister will hope that yet another round of apologies, along with his promised overhaul to the structures of No.10 which has begun, draws a line under partygate and marks a fresh start for his premiership. His own MPs must now decide whether that is the case.
His fate lies in their hands, as it has done throughout. Those who find that unsatisfactory, calling for the prime minister to resign immediately, should take comfort in the rigours of the UK’s parliamentary democracy. A party will decide the fate of its leader, and the voters decide the fate of that party. As MPs make this decision, they will have in the front of their minds voters’ reaction – and voters have been deeply shocked.
This behaviour at the heart of government is deeply damaging. People across the country have been appalled and offended – and will be so again with the publication of this report. However much Johnson expresses regret in the coming hours and days, he has done substantial damage to the office of the prime minister and to the credibility of the government more widely.
His response now matters – in tone, and in substance. He has already, since Gray’s interim report earlier this year, put in place the beginnings of a reorganisation of Downing Street, which Gray acknowledges, but there are reasons to be sceptical of its effectiveness. In any case, no structure guarantees a culture of probity and respecting the rules – and it is the charge that Johnson was not remotely interested in such a thing which is the hardest for him to dismiss.
The most important remaining question now for MPs is whether they think he has knowingly misled parliament.
Gray’s report certainly jars with the prime minister’s explanations to parliament about what he knew and what he events he attended. It contains several instances where staff questioned whether the gatherings should go ahead or talked about the potential “comms” fallout if they were discovered. MPs should not judge Johnson on the basis of specific utterances and how the words can be construed, but the totality of his answers and whether they seemed intended to obfuscate, reduce scrutiny or in other ways deflect from the truth.
Not misleading parliament and preventing it from its crucial scrutiny is a fundamental principle of UK democracy. Ministers, civil servants, and MPs from all parties will often face awkward questions and attempt to answer with a positive 'spin'. But the public must be able to trust what their elected leaders say. That means trusting that there will be consequences for ministers who have broken rules – and that sidestepping scrutiny cannot be accepted.
Johnson’s responses to questions on what events were held in No.10, and whether he attended or not, leave it hard to escape the conclusion that at every stage he has dragged his feet, tried to change the subject or asked MPs to reserve judgement until Gray concluded. His own MPs must now give their judgment.
Gray makes clear that senior civil servants, including Simon Case the cabinet secretary and Martin Reynolds, the prime minister’s principal private secretary, also allowed the culture to develop and failed to defend standards. There have been questions about whether Case can still fulfill his role of leading the civil service.
Case did not receive a fine from the Metropolitan Police, and the identity of the 83 people who did has not, apart from the prime minister and chancellor, been revealed. Many would think it unfair for the top civil servant, not fined, to go when the prime minister, who has been fined, remained. But civil servants are judged by professional bodies and standards, not by MPs and voters as politicians ultimately are. There are questions, too, about why so many junior (and by reports, female) civil servants have been fined but their seniors escaped formal punishment – perhaps because they followed encouragement to cooperate with Gray, who had no choice but to hand over her evidence when the Metropolitan Police did a U-turn and opened an investigation.
Case faces a serious challenge of rebuilding trust and morale within the civil service and rebuilding public trust too. He needs to demonstrate that he can lead the civil service out of this crisis if he is to carry on.
As we have argued, none of the investigative process was desirable. The prime minister should not be investigated by the cabinet secretary (Case was the first choice, before he recused himself) nor even an improvised independent investigation such as Gray’s. There is an independent investigator – a role now held by Lord Geidt – but that role needs full independence from the prime minister, the ability to initiate probes, and powers to call for evidence. No future prime minister should be able to ask his own civil servants to investigate and reach conclusions about his integrity or probity.
- Supporting document
- ethical-standards-government.pdf (PDF, 254.13 KB)
- Ethical standards
- Johnson government
- Number 10
- Institute for Government