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An indictment of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street

From the moment the Metropolitan Police belatedly decided it would investigate alleged breaches of Covid-19 restrictions in Downing Street it was clear the Cabinet Office report into these events would be shorn of detail. Yet even gutted of almost every pertinent fact, the long-awaited report by Sue Gray is a damning indictment of the culture and attitudes at the heart of Boris Johnson’s government.

The report lists 12 gatherings on eight dates now under police investigation for possible violations of the law. These include one in the prime minister’s own private flat, plus the “bring your own booze” party that Johnson attended in the Downing Street garden.

Though forced to limit herself to general observations, Gray’s disgust is obvious and her conclusions shocking. There were failures of “leadership and judgment” in Number 10, and failures to observe “not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of government” but those “expected of the entire British population” at the time.

Far from restoring confidence in the law, having initially refused to investigate what it called “historic” breaches, the Met’s last-minute decision to prevent publication of the report in full has fuelled public suspicions of a cover-up. While it is not bound to do so, the exceptional circumstances mean the Met should be required to reveal full details of its own investigations, once concluded. The public is entitled to know if its prime minister and top officials have been found to have broken the laws they set. The full Gray report must also be published. MPs should know which officials and politicians she found culpable.

On the broader issue of the culture of lockdown breaches in Downing Street, what Gray calls her “update” tells readers everything they need to know. As his predecessor Theresa May noted in the Commons, the prime minister either condoned the breaches, did not care enough to stop them, or is so disconnected that he does not know what is happening in his own office.

The question for Tory MPs who have first bite at settling Johnson’s future is whether this is damning enough to remove him. Part of this will come down to whether he lied to parliament in denying on earlier occasions that rules were broken. His precise words will need to be studied closely but he would certainly appear to have misdirected MPs.

The wider answer is probably that the report contains enough for all sides. Those who wish to save Johnson can say a sweeping clear-out of officials and tightening of internal rules will suffice to wipe the slate clean. This, surely, is Johnson’s survival strategy. Those who want him to go will rightly point out that culture comes from the top. His bombastic performance in the Commons debate on the report was shameless and disingenuous — a clear sign that whatever structural changes may follow, the character of the man in charge will stay the same.

Ultimately, the abridged report confirms what was known: a prime minister who enacted the most swingeing peacetime restrictions on personal freedoms did not feel these laws applied to him or his staff. This is a fundamental breach of trust with the people, who overwhelmingly complied with the restrictions. A government that does not follow the laws it sets forfeits moral authority and legitimacy.

Those Tory MPs proclaiming the leadership crisis is over should think again. Many are judging the report on its impact on their electoral prospects rather than on the serious moral failures it exposes. They cannot be forced to do otherwise, but they should know that inaction is complicity.

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