In the past few minutes, Sue Gray’s final report into lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street has been published. It makes for grim reading. The report is just 37 pages long, along with photos of the events that the senior civil servant was tasked to investigate. The key line is where Gray says that ‘the senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture’ of believing that events were permitted when they were not in line with the rules.
“‘Whatever the initial intent, what took place at many of these gatherings and the way in which they developed was not in line with Covid guidance at the time. Even allowing for the extraordinary pressures officials and advisers were under, the factual findings of this report illustrate some attitudes and behaviours inconsistent with that guidance. It is also clear, from the outcome of the police investigation, that a large number of individuals (83) who attended these events breached Covid regulations and therefore Covid guidance.’
The report lists the events that Gray was tasked with investigating. It has a narrative section where the goings-on at each event are described in detail, including whether alcohol was available, what time people appear to have left, and so on.
Some events are, of course, much worse than others. The leaving party for a No. 10 official on 18 June 2020 involved a karaoke machine provided by Helen MacNamara, the Deputy Cabinet Secretary (and someone so senior that there is no way they could claim not to have known better). It lasted, says the report, ‘for a number of hours. There was excessive alcohol consumption. One individual was sick. There was a minor altercation between two other individuals.’
The messages in the run-up to that event are equally telling. Gray publishes extracts of a conversation between Martin Reynolds, the Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, and Lee Cain, Boris Johnson's Director of Communications which include Cain saying, ‘I’m not sure it works at all to be honest, which would be a shame. I don't see how we can have some kind of party though.’ Reynolds replied: ‘So you are saying nothing for [name of No. 10 official redacted]?’ Cain’s response was: ‘I think it’s your decision my friend, not mind [sic]! But it obviously comes with rather substantial comms risks.’ At the time, gatherings of two or more people indoors and more than six outdoors were banned, as was singing in church, and yet this leaving party involved the use of a karaoke machine. It scarcely needs Gray to point out that karaoke is not a ‘work’ activity.
Reynolds later sent a message to an official saying: ‘Best of luck – a complete non-story but better than them focusing on our drinks (which we seem to have got away with).’ That he described this event as something that needed to avoid scrutiny is very telling. It should cause both him and his boss, Johnson, significant problems.
The gathering on 15 May 2020 where the Prime Minister was pictured consuming cheese and wine with aides, while others stood around a table with wine on it, was ‘actually a number of separate meetings’, all of which were work. But the one five days later which was ‘for the purposes of boosting staff morale following a challenging period for staff’, was one that involved a number of figures allegedly expressing concerns. Notably these figures are senior ones such as Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings. But in her conclusions Gray warns that ‘I found that some staff had witnessed or been subjected to behaviours at work which they had felt concerned about but at times felt unable to raise properly. I was made aware of multiple examples of a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff. This was unacceptable.’
There aren’t just questions for the leadership of Downing Street, including Johnson, though. The police witnessed one of the gatherings, on 18 December 2020, and don’t seem to have done anything about what they saw. At this event there was a Secret Santa exchange, an awards ceremony and a quiz. The investigation was told ‘that this an extension of the type of awards ceremony which might take place on “Wine Time Friday”’. The police ‘observed a large number of people in the area outside of the main press office and one individual giving a speech. Inside the press office a further 15 to 20 people were present.’ There have already been questions for the Metropolitan police about why Johnson only received one fixed penalty notice. Now there will be questions about why the police didn’t intervene at the time.
Strikingly, Gray does make a number of comments about the ‘progress’ that has already been made in addressing the concerns she raised in her update published in January. This is likely to be something Boris Johnson will lean heavily on when he gives his statement to the Commons later today.
Her conclusions are not particularly surprising given what we already read in her earlier update. Where the grimness comes is in the long list of events where people drank, ignored the rules, and joked with one another that they had got away with it.