Sue Gray report: what are the possible outcomes?

Boris Johnson delivers defensive address after civil servant publishes damning report

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson’s political fate hangs in the balance
(Image credit: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Boris Johnson said he is “humbled” and has “learned a lesson” after senior civil servant Sue Gray finally published her full report into Downing Street lockdown parties.

Its release was held off until the completion of the Metropolitan Police’s inquiry, which has now concluded after issuing fixed penalty notices to 83 Downing Street staff and politicians, including the prime minister, sharing 126 fines for breaches of Covid measures.

The report, which included nine photographs of illicit gatherings, found that Johnson showed “failures of leadership” and “must bear responsibility”. Gray said the public would be “dismayed that behaviour of this kind took place on this scale at the heart of government” and that the conduct was “inconsistent” with the rules imposed on the rest of the country. So what happens next?

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1. No confidence vote

Conservative MPs who have long been unhappy with Johnson’s scandal-hit premiership have been awaiting the end of the Metropolitan Police inquiry and the publication of Gray’s full report before deciding whether to submit letters of no confidence in their leader. They will be reading the Gray report closely to see if there is any evidence that he misled the Commons when he denied that rules had been broken. Johnson insists he was telling what he believed to be the truth at the time.

If 54 letters were submitted to the 1922 Committee, a vote would be triggered. If more than 50% of Tory MPs voted to remove Johnson, he would lose his role as party leader and as PM, and be barred from competing in the subsequent leadership election.

The lengthy police inquiry, as well as the fact that Johnson, “to the surprise of many lawyers”, was only fined once for breaching Covid rules has “taken the wind out of much of the rebellion”, said The Guardian. Nevertheless, a “damaging report” followed by Tory losses in next month’s by-elections in Tiverton and Honiton, and Wakefield “could rebuild momentum for change”.

2. Westminster clear-out

Earlier this year Johnson brought in a new team of senior advisers and whips in a bid to save his ailing premiership, but more heads could roll. The report could spell “disaster” for one senior government official in particular, with civil service chief Simon Case reportedly set to “take the fall” for the scandal, predicted The Mirror ahead of the report. However, so far, Case is still in post and was only mentioned in the report three times.

Today, Johnson told MPs that he took “ultimate responsibility” for the scandal, but insisted he had “no knowledge” of some of the proceedings mentioned in the report because he was not there.

“I have been as surprised and disappointed as anyone else in this House as the revelations have unfolded and frankly I have been appalled by some of the behaviour,” he added.

3. PM’s resignation

SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, called on the prime minister to “resign, resign, resign” today. Calling the report “damning”, he reminded the Commons of the details reported: “Empty bottles littering offices, rooms so crowded people were sitting on each other’s laps and security forced to intervene because the parties were so outrageous.”

Johnson has signalled that he won’t go without being pushed, vowing to stay on to deal with the Ukraine war and cost-of-living crisis.

But in “findings which will trouble Conservative MPs anxious about holding on to their seats in the next general election”, a new Savanta poll found that two-thirds of voters thought Johnson should resign if he faced heavy criticism in the report, while a quarter of those who backed the Tories in 2019 said they were less likely to do so again with Johnson as leader, said The Independent.

4. Disciplinary action

Gray said the “matter of what disciplinary action should now take place is outside of the scope of this report and is for others to consider”. However, she offered what she called “a reflection”, that “those in the most junior positions attended gatherings at which their seniors were present, or indeed organised”. She said she had “no doubt” that they will have learned from their experience.

The BBC reported that “any specific HR action against individual members of staff – either civil servants or political advisers – would be confidential”.

5. Another inquiry

Johnson is already set to face an investigation by the Commons Privileges Committee into whether he misled parliament when he claimed that no rules had been broken in Downing Street, only to later receive a fixed penalty notice from the Metropolitan Police for flouting Covid rules.

If a minister is found to have misled parliament, this is normally considered to be a resigning matter – although only by convention, meaning Johnson could resist calls to go.

6. Nothing... for now

“Time has proved a great healer for Boris Johnson,” said Camilla Tominey at The Telegraph. This – and the fact the juiciest contents of Sue Gray’s eagerly awaited report had already been leaked – meant the final version felt a bit like being presented with a birthday cake with some of the slices already eaten.”

With Gray also acknowledging that changes have already been made to the “unwieldy” No. 10, “Teflon Johnson lives to fight another day”, concluded Tominey.

In The Guardian, Katy Balls agreed that had the report come out in January or February “it could have been the final nail in the coffin for the prime minister”, but since then his situation has improved. “The biggest reason he is still in Downing Street is the lack of an obvious replacement,” she added. “So while today’s report may not change his position, it will add to concerns about the miserable situation the Tory party is now in.”

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