Sue Gray report published: can Boris Johnson hang on?

Behaviour surrounding gatherings in Downing Street ‘is difficult to justify’, says Gray

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson visited Tilbury Docks in Essex as Sue Gray released an ‘update’ on her findings
(Image credit: Matt Dunham - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Boris Johnson’s political fate hangs in the balance today after initial findings from Sue Gray’s inquiry into rule-busting Downing Street parties was published.

The civil servant tasked with investigating the gatherings in No. 10 said some of the behaviour was “difficult to justify”.

“At least some of the gatherings in question represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of Government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time,” she wrote.

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Gray said there were “failures of leadership and judgment” by different parts of No. 10 and the Cabinet Office, and that some of the events “should not have been allowed to take place”.

Some staff felt unable to raise concerns about what they witnessed, said the report, prompting Gray to call for easier ways for informal whistleblowing outside of the line management chain.

‘Irrevocably weakened’

At the beginning of January, The Observer wrote that Johnson entered 2022 as an “irrevocably weakened political figure” as revelations over Downing Street parties – among other scandals – saw his poll rating tank only two years after he won his party a decisive parliamentary majority of 80. This only worsened as more allegations emerged.

But reports over the weekend suggested that the mood of his party had softened, at least over the so-called “partygate” scandal. Polling from ConservativeHome showed that while last month the majority of the site's panel believed that the row over Downing Street parties “was not being overblown”, this month had seen that sentiment reversed.

Some 55% of respondents felt the importance of the scandal to voters was being overstated, compared to almost 42% who felt it was not overblown, according to the site's own polling.

Editor Paul Goodman wrote that he felt there had been a “swingback” in the prime minister’s favour from Conservative MPs and the party faithful over the past fortnight. In part this is because MPs say that correspondence from constituents about “partygate” has “faded away” and because of an absence of a “killer blow” to Johnson’s premiership, namely any evidence that Johnson himself actually organised a Downing Street party over lockdown.

Johnson will also be helped “in the short term” by the Metropolitan Police’s request that Gray’s inquiry into Downing Street parties made only “minimal reference” to events that are being looked at as part of a criminal investigation, said the i news policy editor Jane Merrick.

In today’s report, described as an “update”, Gray admitted that she was “extremely limited” in what she could say and that it was “not possible at present to provide a meaningful report setting out and analysing the extensive factual information I have been able to gather”.

Merrick warned that a heavily censored report into the conduct of the prime minister and Downing Street aides could “fuel public anger”, leading Tory MPs to “feel compelled to go ahead with letters of no confidence if their constituents bombard them with angry messages over a perceived Establishment cover-up”.

Polling risk

Yet rebel Tory MPs could be put off mounting a coup against the prime minister, and possibly triggering an early general election, by polling that suggests “Labour has a stronger reputation for economic competence than the Tories in seats which Mr Johnson gained at the last election”, said political editor Pippa Crerar in the Mirror.

Polling for the paper found that 42% of people would back Labour to run the nation’s finances, while just 36% support Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak’s ability to run the economy.

It also found Keir Starmer ahead in approval ratings, with the Labour leader winning a +4 approval rating compared with Johnson’s -4.

“It means that the Conservatives are substantially behind Labour on both leadership and the economy,” said Crerar, with “no party ever going on to win a general election from that position”.

And speculation that Rishi Sunak – notably absent from the prime minister’s side a fortnight ago as he apologised to parliament – might be jockeying for position as the next Conservative leader has been dampened by the publication of a joint piece in The Sunday Times where the PM and chancellor united behind the government’s commitment to raise national insurance.

“We must clear the backlogs with our health and social care plan, and now is the time to stick to it,” they said.

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