Police investigations into events at Downing Street have now concluded and the report of the senior civil servant, Sue Gray, who was asked to look into the nature and character of those events, has been published. I have looked carefully at the evidence now available and have taken some time to think about it, as the gravity of the situation demands, before setting out and explaining in detail the conclusions I have reached.
As you may know from what I have said previously on this subject, which you can find https://www.jeremywright.org.uk/news/prime-minister-0, https://www.jeremywright.org.uk/news/update-prime-minister, and https://www.jeremywright.org.uk/news/prime-minister-april-2022 , I consider the charge of misleading Parliament to be so serious it must lead to resignation if it is established. I repeat my view that misleading the House of Commons must mean telling it something that you know to be false or do not believe to be true, rather than telling it something you believe to be true but which is later found not to be the case. The question now therefore is whether the new evidence we have disproves the Prime Minister’s claim that he genuinely and reasonably believed the events he attended were permissible under the rules.
We already know that the Metropolitan Police have concluded that the Prime Minister broke the Covid rules on one occasion – 19th June 2020, when he attended an impromptu and (to him) surprise birthday celebration. The police have found no breach of the rules in his attendance at several other events which they have investigated. I have seen nothing in Sue Gray’s report to change my view that, at the time he made relevant statements to the House of Commons, he could genuinely and reasonably have believed that he did not break rules on 19th June 2020, although he now accepts the police conclusion that he did. I do not therefore see the issuing of a Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN) to the Prime Minister as evidence that he misled the House of Commons in relation to that incident.
However, it is not only the Prime Minister’s own legal culpability that is relevant in considering potential misleading of Parliament, he was also asked about rule breaking by others. Specifically, he was asked in the House of Commons on 1st December 2021 about a Christmas Party on 18th December 2020 in Downing Street, which Sue Gray confirms did happen but which the Prime Minister did not attend. His answer was that “all guidance was followed completely in Number 10”. On 8th December 2021, he told the House of Commons (without being asked a specific question) that “I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken”. He was also asked that day whether there was a party in Downing Street on 13th November 2020. His answer was “No – but I am sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times”. Sue Gray’s report confirms that there were 2 gatherings that day, one a leaving event for a member of staff and one which she describes as a meeting in the Downing Street flat and about which there is little detail.
On 12th January 2021 the Prime Minister apologised to the House of Commons in relation to a gathering on 20th May 2020 in the Downing Street garden, saying “I believed implicitly it was a work event”. It is perhaps worth noting that a few days earlier, on 15th May 2020 (when the Covid rules were identical), another gathering took place, also in the garden, where wine and cheese were available, but in relation to which the police subsequently took no action against any individuals present and indeed, following the publication of photographs of the event, declined to investigate possible breaches of the rules in relation to that event at all. This seems to me to be relevant in determining whether the Prime Minister could reasonably have believed that gatherings in the garden could have been within the rules when addressing Parliament in relation to the event on 20th May 2020.
It is also worth recalling at this point that the Covid rules changed somewhat over the period during which these events took place, but at all relevant times the rules prohibited gatherings unless they were ‘essential for work purposes’ or (after 1st June 2020) ‘reasonably necessary’ for work purposes. The Prime Minister’s argument has therefore been that he believed the events he attended were not parties, but work events which were permitted under the Covid rules in place at the time. Whether the police subsequently reached the conclusion that was so or not, if, when speaking in the House of Commons about those events, the Prime Minister did believe that and did so reasonably, then it seems to me his statements could not be seen as knowingly misleading. It matters greatly therefore whether the evidence available can demonstrate that he did not have, or could not reasonably have had, that belief.
The issuing of Fixed Penalty Notices in relation to the relevant events does not resolve this question. The Prime Minister is entitled to point out that in relation to all the events he attended, with the exception of his impromptu birthday celebration on 19th June 2020, the police have taken the view that (in his case at least) attendance was in itself not a breach of the rules, or he would have received FPNs in relation to them too. In fact, in relation to an event Sue Gray confirms the Prime Minister attended on 27th November 2020, no FPNs were issued to anyone. Sue Gray describes this as a leaving event attended by 15-20 people (too large a gathering to be permissible under the rules in place at the time unless reasonably necessary for work purposes), some drinking alcohol, at which the Prime Minister made a short speech. In other words, the police must have concluded that leaving events involving gatherings of more than the normally permitted size, even involving alcohol, could be reasonably necessary for work purposes and therefore within the rules for all attending. Again, this seems to me to be significant in determining whether the Prime Minister could reasonably have believed that leaving events of the sort that constituted the majority of the events he attended were within the Covid rules.
The Metropolitan Police have not disclosed to whom FPNs were issued or why, but it is apparent from Sue Gray’s report that, in relation to the events the Prime Minister attended, he did not stay at them long, so it is entirely possible that behaviour attracting FPNs took place when he was not present. The worst behaviour described by Sue Gray certainly took place in his absence. FPNs were also issued in relation to events the Prime Minister did not attend at all. I do not think it can therefore be the case that the fact FPNs were later issued (albeit a significant number in total) in itself demonstrates that the Prime Minister must have realised, when he spoke about these events, that rules were broken and that he must accordingly have knowingly misled the House of Commons about that.
Is there other evidence then which establishes that the Prime Minister must have realised that rules were broken in Downing Street before he told the House of Commons that, as far as he was aware, they were not? In particular, is it likely that the Prime Minister would have been aware of communications between others which indicate that there was at least doubt about whether the events in question were within the rules? Sue Gray sets out in her report, in some detail, email traffic and other messages sent between Downing Street officials and advisers about the arrangements for some of those events and there were also comments made afterwards about how they may be seen. Those messages are at least indicative that, at the time, several officials thought these events should not have happened in the way they did. There is, however, no evidence that the Prime Minister was himself aware of any of those communications and, in my experience of Government, it is highly unlikely that the Prime Minister would be part of, or copied in to, conversations about the logistical arrangements for events of any kind in Downing Street. It does not automatically follow therefore that because officials in Downing Street, even senior officials, knew or suspected that gatherings would be against the rules at the time, the Prime Minister himself did. Finally, Sue Gray does not conclude that the Prime Minister must have known of rule breaking when it happened by any other means.
I cannot therefore be sure from the evidence I have seen that the Prime Minister lied to Parliament. When it comes to the charge of knowingly misleading the House of Commons, scepticism or suspicion cannot be enough. Natural justice, to which we are all entitled, requires that it must be demonstrated by the evidence that the Prime Minister did knowingly mislead, not that he is assumed to have done so unless he can prove otherwise. The Privileges Committee of the House of Commons is still to investigate the issue of potential misleading of Parliament of course, and it may be that they are shown evidence not yet presented. I remain open to changing my view on this question in the light of their report when it is produced, but I do not believe the case for deliberate misleading of Parliament by the Prime Minister has as yet been made, to the necessary standard, such that his resignation is essential on that ground.
However, the debate about, and investigation into, alleged parties in Downing Street has gone on for many months now, and the corrosive effect of that debate and the Prime Minister’s response to it must also be considered.
I have set out why I cannot be sure that the Prime Minister knowingly misled the House of Commons, but in my view there is clear evidence he has been negligent. I believe he could and should have done more to satisfy himself that the assurances he had been given, and that he was in turn giving Parliament, were indeed correct. If at any point he discovered or concluded that they were not, he could and should have come to the House of Commons to correct the record, before public disclosures by others made that unavoidable.
I also find it inconceivable that senior officials and advisers would have tolerated, facilitated and even encouraged the breaking of Covid rules if they believed that the Prime Minister would have been horrified and outraged by what was happening in Downing Street when he was not there. The official who probably comes off worst from Sue Gray’s report is Martin Reynolds who, as the Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary at the time, was with him most of every day and should have been most concerned to ensure Downing Street staff acted as the Prime Minister would wish. If leadership is in part about setting the right tone for the organisation you lead, the tone represented by the routine disregard for the spirit, and often the letter of the Covid rules which Sue Gray describes betrayed at best a casual and at worst a contemptuous attitude to the sacrifices made and distress felt by the many who observed rigorously both spirit and letter of those rules. I find it impossible to accept that the Prime Minister does not bear some personal responsibility for that tone. Frankly, the fact that leaving events of the kind described by Sue Gray may have been within the rules does not make them wise in the context of the example which should have been set in Downing Street, and the Prime Minister should have found other ways to thank departing members of staff, as other managers around the country had to do.
I fear too that these events have done real and lasting damage to the reputation not just of this Government but to the institutions and authority of Government more generally. That matters because it is sadly likely that a Government will again need to ask the citizens of this country to follow rules it will be difficult to comply with and to make sacrifices which will be hard to bear, in order to serve or preserve the greater good. The collective consequences of those citizens declining to do so may again be severe. It is of fundamental importance then that, as and when those circumstances occur again, people are willing to do as their Government asks them to. There can be no more central or significant duty of the Prime Minister’s office in Downing Street than to support and enhance the effectiveness of Government policy at times of crisis, in a country where we are broadly governed by consent. What we now know happened in Downing Street during months of Covid restrictions imposed by Government policy makes that consent less likely, as many will say that if senior Government officials don’t keep to the rules, why should I? Putting that right matters hugely to the essence of Government authority and to the effectiveness of Government policy, and I cannot see that the moving on of civil servants or apologies, however heartfelt, will succeed in doing so. Accountability and restoring faith in good Government require something more, both to safeguard future public compliance with Government instructions when it counts, and to allow the present Government to deliver the important legislation it has introduced, including vital changes to social care funding, energy security and online regulation. It now seems to me that the Prime Minister remaining in office will hinder those crucial objectives. I have therefore, with regret, concluded that, for the good of this and future Governments, the Prime Minister should resign.