By Connor Steel
DAYS after launching their investigation into social gatherings at Downing Street during lockdown, a new intervention from the Metropolitan Police on Friday morning has seen Sue Gray’s investigation report delayed until at least early next week as the ‘partygate’ scandal continues to dominate British politics; increasing the pressure on Boris Johnson and his two-year tenure as Prime Minister.
In a week of many twists and turns there was talk on Monday that the report from the senior civil servant would be released imminently, with voters and MPs awaiting the outcome of this internal investigation. Speculation furthermore included a statement from Mr Johnson in the Houses of Commons and potentially a vote of no confidence from Conservatives on either Tuesday or Wednesday if 54 letters were submitted by MPs.
This remained the case despite the announcement from Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick on Tuesday morning, confirming that officers were looking into “potential breaches of Covid-19 regulations” in Downing Street and Whitehall over the last two years; also confirming the force had no objections in publishing Sue Gray’s report in full, with suggestions that it was “largely complete”.
But after two days of scrutiny from lawyers and the Cabinet Office to ensure that a duty of care was enacted to those mentioned in the report, updated plans to publish early next week were dealt another blow as the Metropolitan Police confirmed late on Thursday evening it had asked for “minimal reference” to be made within Sue Gray report to the events it is currently investigating.
The full statement read: “For the events the Met is investigating, we asked for minimal reference to be made in the Cabinet Office report. The Met did not ask for any limitations on other events in the report, or for the report to be delayed, but we have had ongoing contact with the Cabinet Office, including on the content of the report, to avoid any prejudice to our investigation.”
This move from Scotland Yard means that Sue Gray must now decide whether to publish a report that’s been stripped of material relevant to the police inquiry or wait until officers have given its verdict. The next steps are unclear despite another statement from the Metropolitan Police that further announced that they had “received all information they requested to support their investigations” in another update on Friday night.
Although Downing Street have welcomed the investigation and committed their plans to publish the report in full when received, opposition MPs are highly critical of the delays and uncertainty. Both Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party leaders have called the intervention a “stitch up”, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer saying “What I want to see is Sue Gray’s report in full and the investigation finished as quickly as possible”.
Lawyers are further debating whether the intervention was needed with former Chief Crown prosecutor Nazir Afzal saying on Twitter: “This is absolute nonsense from the Met Police. A purely factual report by Sue Gray cannot possibly prejudice a police investigation. They just have to follow the evidence, of which the report will be a part.”
In response Nick Aldworth, a former Metropolitan Police chief superintendent and counter-terrorism national co-ordinator, said the report could prejudice the police investigation “by disclosing the evidence that they will gather and thereby giving the potential defendants an opportunity to conceal or alter evidence”.
Under the Coronavirus Act 2020, those found guilty of breaches can only face fixed penalty notices rather than any jail term. Depending on when the offences occurred, fines can range from £60 to £10,000 as these have changed over the last two years; although any investigations may open up further criminal cases such as ‘perverting the course of justice’ and ‘misconduct in public office’, although both are unlikely.
At the time of writing there are reports that Mr Johnson will receive the report in the ‘coming hours or days’, although this hasn’t been confirmed by Downing Street and the Cabinet Office. It is believed that the report will then be published to opposition MPs with time allowed to examine the findings before a debate and statement in Parliament, with the schedules likely to change on a daily basis next week.
PICTURED BY SKY NEWS: Police officer walks past the entrance of Number Ten, Downing Street as investigation launched into lockdown parties