The UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, is facing calls to resign after it was revealed that his staff held gatherings in Downing Street while strict pandemic rules were in place for the rest of the nation.
Faced with constant questions over how much he knew and whether he sanctioned the events, Johnson has consistently insisted that all questions will be answered by an inquiry whose results are shortly to be published. But what is this inquiry and how damaging could it really be?
Who is running the inquiry into the scandal?
The woman behind the inquiry is Sue Gray. She is a civil servant – a government bureaucrat rather than a judge or lawmaker. This is important to note because what she is working on is an internal inquiry – and has no legal status. It could be said that the government is investigating itself through Gray. The terms of reference for this inquiry were set by the prime minister himself. In that sense, it is not an independent inquiry and does not bear any relation to a public inquiry as we understand it.
Gray has been brought in to investigate the facts and provide a timeline of events, not to judge whether lockdown laws were broken. We should not expect a scenario in which Johnson will resign on the basis of the report specifically. Nor can we even expect the report to be published in full. It may be that the prime minister will decide not to publish parts of the report that he deems damaging. We wait to see.
What is the inquiry looking at?
Gray was brought in after various revelations made their way into the media about how government staff were behaving while the wider public were being forced to comply with extreme limitations on their lives. Photos have emerged of drinks in the garden at Downing Street and the prime minister’s former head of communications was caught on camera admitting that a Christmas party had taken place. Most recently an email was leaked that appeared to invite people to “bring your own booze” to a gathering in the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020 – when the law stated you could only meet one other person from outside your household.
Gray is to present the facts about these gatherings. She will, for example, be looking at who was present on particular times by examining the logs and records held on who enters government buildings. She will seek out evidence, such as emails, that would indicate that Johnson or others understood these gatherings to be anything other than work events.
Could Johnson face criminal charges?
At the time when these events occurred, it was illegal to do many things in the UK under emergency legislation brought in for the pandemic. Gathering in groups was not permitted and nor was travelling for anything other than essential purposes. Should Gray uncover any potentially illegal activity, she might pass the information she finds on to the police or ask them to investigate certain points. She cannot herself assume legal authority and make any judgements about the activities about the “culture” at 10 Downing Street during the pandemic or issue legal sanctions.
It should also be noted that while the Gray report will be published imminently, there is very little expectation that any police investigation would produce findings in the immediate future. Anyone hoping to see a sitting prime minister taken away for questioning is likely to be sorely disappointed. It’s highly unlikely that charges will be brought based on Gray’s report.
So why is there so much anticipation around this report?
The report cannot, itself, bring down Boris Johnson. But it does carry some weight. This scandal has damaged Johnson and the Conservative party. It is focusing minds on the next election.
It is certainly the case that Johnson has supporters in the party, even now. He won the 2019 election with a large majority. Johnson has electoral capital and supporters are loath to let that go.
The problem is that not all of them support him. The way he has handled this scandal has caused deep anger in his party. Angry MPs tend to find reasons to express their anger by not toeing the party line, making it harder for Johnson to consolidate his significant parliamentary majority and get his policies agreed. For example, one Conservative MP has made public allegations that Conservative whips, or party managers, have been blackmailing MPs. Going public, rather than keeping the matter behind closed doors amounts to a significant expression of anger with the prime minister.
And MPs are not merely angry with Johnson: he is now increasingly viewed as a potential electoral liability. Expressions of anger are therefore significant. For Johnson to cost the Conservative party votes would be an unforgivable development. Some of his MPs have taken their feelings of anger further and have already submitted letters of no confidence to the party’s backbench 1922 Committee. If 15% of all Conservative MPs do this it would trigger a vote of no confidence in Johnson – and it is this crucial process that may begin a leadership contest for the Conservative party and therefore the post of prime minister.
The fear is that if Gray’s report is as damaging as feared, more Conservatives will be motivated to write in, bringing the spectre of a leadership challenge ever closer. This week, in which it is expected that Sue Gray will complete her investigation, is very important for Johnson as prime minister because the value of his electoral capital is at stake. Without it, he has little to offer the Conservative party.
Sue Roberts is Senior Lecturer in Public Management, and Course Leader of Masters in Public Administration at the School of Area Studies, History, Politics and Literature in the
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.