The full report may never be made public and civil servant Sue Gray has no power to sack anyone
For weeks now, it has seemed, just about every question to a minister has met the same response: we need to wait for the Gray report. Its publication is now seemingly imminent – so what is the report, and what might it find?
What is the Gray report?
It is an investigation into allegations of lockdown-breaching parties inside Downing Street and more widely in government, ordered by No 10 in December and carried out by the Cabinet Office. The probe was originally led by Simon Case, the cabinet secretary – the UK’s most senior civil servant – but he stepped down soon after the process began, after reports his office also held a social event. Sue Gray took over.
Who is Sue Gray?
Another senior civil servant – her official job is second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. The title, however, belies her status and reputation. A longtime civil servant, who once ran a pub in Newry with her country and western singer husband, Gray spent years heading the Cabinet Office’s propriety and ethics team, in charge of investigating alleged breaches of discipline, including by ministers.
What is she looking into?
The initial remit handed to Case was to look at two alleged events at No 10 in the winter of 2020 – on 27 November and 18 December – and one in the Department for Education on 10 December 2020. But the terms of reference, kept under Gray, add: “Where there are credible allegations relating to other gatherings, these may be investigated.” Many more other claims have been added. Most recently, these include allegations of a party in Boris Johnson’s private Downing Street flat, and of a birthday party for the PM.
How has the investigation operated?
Gray and her team were promised access to “all relevant records” and could speak to members of staff. While it has no judicial status, meaning Gray has no powers to compel non-staff members to talk or submit evidence, some have, such as Johnson’s former chief aide, Dominic Cummings, and police officers who were on duty.
What is it meant to find out?
The main purpose, as set out in the terms of reference, is “to establish swiftly a general understanding of the nature of the gatherings, including attendance, the setting and the purpose”. It adds: “If required, the investigations will establish whether individual disciplinary action is warranted.” If there is any evidence of potential criminality, this can be passed to the Metropolitan police – as has happened.
Can Gray sack wrongdoers?
No. If she were to recommend disciplinary action against civil servants or political advisers, the expectation is that this would take place, using normal HR procedures. But ministers are only held accountable to the ministerial code, which is ultimately enforced by the prime minister.
Might Gray say Johnson has breached the ministerial code?
In theory it is possible, but this does not seem likely. To do so would effectively end the prime minister’s career, and as a civil servant, however senior and influential, this would seem well beyond Gray’s remit. It is, however, very possible that the sheer weight of facts laid out could make Johnson’s position untenable. Time will tell.
When will the report be published?
Only Gray knows for certain, although it is understood to be completed, so this could happen as early as Wednesday. There was a brief assumption that the police investigation could delay this for weeks, but the Met have made clear they are happy for the report to come immediately.
Will it be published in full?
That does not seem likely. When Johnson announced the Case inquiry he told MPs that a copy of Case’s full report would be put in the library of the House of Commons. But the terms of reference say only: “The findings of the investigations will be made public.” In recent days, ministers have talked only of the findings being published, with Johnson deciding how complete this is. It could be as little as a précis of a couple of pages, or could be notably more.
What happens when it is published?
Ministers have said that as soon as it is out, Johnson will want to make a statement to the Commons and take questions. This is seemingly to try to allow the PM to set out the narrative of what it finds. However, MPs, journalists and others will also be reading it – and coming to their own conclusions.