Published:

  • Sue Gray will write that her remit was to investigate certain “staff gatherings” – and that she has no remit to make recommendations in relation to anything other than the civil service (including Special Advisers).  The essence of her report will conclude that certain gatherings, including the party on May 20 2020, broke the Covid rules in place at the time.  Recommendations will be made about civil service practice.  Such senior civil servants as Martin Reynolds and Jack Doyle will be named.
  • This is the safest bet one can place at the moment on the content of Gray’s report.  A Cabinet Minister told me that she won’t leap “the high bar of destabilising a Prime Minister” – which could help create a myth, however unfairly, of a pro-Brexit Prime Minister brought down by a Remain establishment blob.
  • However, she could also specifically refer to law-breaking; cite a culture of rule-breaking; name senior SpAds; name Johnson himself.  The first would increase pressure on the Met to begin an investigation – a possibility complicated by the relationship between Cressida Dick, a Theresa May-era appointment as the force’s Commissioner, and Ten Downing Street/the Home Office, which has not always been an easy one.  The Met is  institutionally reluctant to intervene.
  • Were Gray to take such a route, the force would find it hard not to investigate.  Were the Prime Minister then to be charged, or even perhaps were he interviewed under caution, his position would become impossible.  At the least, a police investigation working on an unknown timetable would hang over the Government like a Damoclean sword.
  • Other actors may be poised to enter the stage.  These include Kathryn Stone, the Commissioner for Standards, who didn’t investigate the Number Ten redecoration saga, did probe the Prime Minister’s holiday in Mustique, and was the nemesis of Owen Paterson – together with Chris Bryant and his Standards Committee, which may also arrive on the scene.
  • Then there is Sir Christopher Geidt, who cleared Johnson over redecoration, will certainly have been reluctant to help dislodge a Prime Minister, but whose report into the incident was critical of him and his operation.  He may have just exited the scene, but could soon re-enter – because of claims that Johnson has again broken the Ministerial Code.
  • Next, I turn to senior politicians.  Sam Coates of Sky News has a list of which Cabinet members have publicly backed the Prime Minister.  Simon Hart, Brandon Lewis, Alistair Jack and Baroness Evans aren’t on it.  Nadine Dorries was the first to tweet in Johnson’s support and Liz Truss the last (though she sat next to him earlier at PMQs).
  • Rishi Sunak wasn’t at PMQs, chose instead to make a work visit to Ilfracombe, gave no interview during the day, and tweeted a brief statement at 20.00 which gave Johnson less than total support: “The PM was right to apologise and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray carries out her enquiry.”  I gather that the Chancellor saw the Prime Minister earlier during the evening.
  • Meanwhile, Roger Gale, Caroline Nokes and William Wragg have all called on Johnson to go.  Wragg is Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee – not an insignificant player in this drama.  He is also a 1922 Executive vice-Chairman and, like his constituency neighbour Graham Brady, a leading Covid rebel.
  • Douglas Ross’s call for the Prime Minister to resign is more significant, since it has been backed by more than half of Scotland’s Tory MSPs. A gulf has now opened up between the Conservative Party in Scotland and the Conservative Party elsewhere.  It is very difficult to see how Ross could credibly call on Scottish voters to back a Johnson-led Tory party at the next general election.
  • Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that an institutional gap is opening up between the party in England and the other parts of the UK.  Hart, as noted, hasn’t tweeted (though he has given a less than fully supportive interview).  Lewis at Northern Ireland completes the territorial trinity.
  • Next, the opinion polls.  There is a dreadful YouGov today for the Government.  It puts the Conservatives on 28 per cent.  This is only one survey but surely points to the immediate trend.  Overall, the gap in Politico’s current poll of polls is less bad for the Prime Minister than it might be: Labour leads by four points. During the Christmas period, it was six points.  The Government’s relative success with Omicron seems to be having little effect.
  • All in all, then, Conservative MPs chose yesterday to wait for Gray and perhaps Geidt, Stone, the Met, potential resignations, and Labour motions in the Commons which will put them on the spot, perhaps resulting in significant abstensions.  The Government is marooned until Gray reports, which may take a week or longer.
  • It might be better to say that they chose by not choosing.  One way of looking at the silence of the Tory backbenches at PMQs, and the muted reception that they gave Michael Gove at yesterday evening’s ’22 Executive, is that they are showing collective discipline.  Another would be that the Parliamentary Party is playing a game of grandmother’s footsteps.  Another will be that it will wait until May. Or not move at all.
  • Zac Goldsmith has tweeted a summary of the case for Johnson. “Boris: A stonking majority Got Brexit done Stood up to Covid gloomsters (& general hysteria) World-leading vaccines that saved countless lives Economic recovery, jobs, optimism World champion for nature & climate. There’s a reason the left (&remain/covid fanatics) want him gone”.
  • But this stout support is not characteristic of the Tory MPs I’ve been speaking to.  They view the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday as a classic non-apology apology: saying he’s sorry without conceding that he did anything wrong.  I’m thinking as I close of James Purnell, who quit government because he couldn’t bring himself to back Gordon Brown.  I’m not saying that Sunak will do likewise, but each of us has his limits.

Headline with apologies to Angus Parsad-Wyatt.