Final legal checks have delayed the publication of the long-awaited “Partygate” report, sparking fears in Westminster that its findings may not become public until Monday.
Sources close to Sue Gray’s inquiry confirmed that her report is complete and is expected to be handed to Boris Johnson within days.
But a process of “legal scrubbing” has been taking place, to ensure that the final report does not unfairly identify junior staff nor cut across the separate investigation by Metropolitan Police.
Sources insist that there has been no interference from Downing Street in the process of finalising the document, which is expected to be highly uncomfortable for the prime minister.
Ms Gray is believed to be determined to deliver the report to No 10 in a state which will ensure that further redactions are not required before publication.
No day has yet been fixed for it to be handed over, and senior Labour backbencher Chris Bryant said that, with Tory MPs on a one-line whip on Thursday and most MPs absent on Friday, it now appeared that Monday was the most likely day for publication.
Bryant said No 10 had to give “plenty of time to allow people to read it before the prime minister comes to the house”, so they could “digest it properly”.
Downing Street said it was Mr Johnson’s “intention” to publish the report as received from the Whitehall mandarin as soon as possible after it reaches No 10, with a statement to MPs following shortly afterwards. But the prime minister refused to rule out further changes at No 10’s hands, sparking demands from Labour for publication unchanged and in full.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said that the prime minister’s conduct over alleged breaches of Covid restrictions at No 10 had become a “national embarrassment” and a distraction from vital issues like Russian aggression in Ukraine.
“You aren’t telling me that all of those people in No 10 right now are focused on the crisis in Ukraine, the cost-of-living crisis or the ongoing challenges for the NHS,” said Mr Streeting.
“I think Boris Johnson is trying to fight a war of attrition here. He’s hoping that we’ll all get bored and move on. Bluntly, I am bored of talking about Boris Johnson’s lies and deceit. I’d much rather be talking about the central issues facing the country.
“But we can’t let Boris Johnson get away with it, because we have basic standards to uphold.”
But appearing before MPs in the House of Commons, Mr Johnson accused the opposition of putting questions about the inquiry ahead of the pressing matters which he said were preoccupying ministers.
Buoyed by a wall of cheers from packed Tory benches at Prime Minister’s Questions, the PM told Sir Keir Starmer he was “getting on with the job”.
Asked directly by the Labour leader if he would resign, Mr Johnson replied flatly: “No.”
The prime minister appeared to acknowledge the dissatisfaction of his own MPs, some of whom have signed letters of no confidence in his leadership, telling the Commons that he could not deny that “for all sorts of reasons, many people may want me out of the way”.
But he said that Starmer wanted him out because “he knows that this government can be trusted to deliver”.
Sir Keir retorted that Johnson and his government had shown “nothing but contempt for the decency, honesty and respect that define this country”.
“We now have the shameful spectacle of a prime minister of the United Kingdom being subject to a police investigation, unable to lead the country, incapable of doing the right thing,” said Sir Keir. “And every day his cabinet fail to speak out they become more and more complicit.”
There were indications that a concerted effort by Mr Johnson to shore up support among wavering MPs may be bearing some fruit.
Red wall MP Mark Logan, who last week issued a call for “honest leadership”, said that a conversation with the PM had persuaded him Johnson has the “heart” to make the changes necessary to restore public confidence.
“He was very genuine in accepting that changes have to happen and we have to get the vehicle between the hedges again,” said the Bolton North East MP. “I think there’s been a bit of aquaplaning, we’ve hit a few puddles on the road and when you are at the wheel you have to steady the car.”
One former minister told The Independent that the alternative whipping team set up by Mr Johnson had reassured MPs frustrated with the performance of chief whip Mark Spencer that there was now “the semblance of a proper party operation in place”.
But rebels insisted that they remain confident the eventual publication of the Gray report – whose findings are expected to be uncomfortable for the PM – will trigger the 54 letters needed to force a confidence vote.
And behind the scenes discussions were already starting on who his successor might be. MPs belonging to the Tory Reform Group met for informal preliminary talks about who they could back, with support voiced for Michael Gove and Tom Tugendhat by some members of the “One Nation” group on the more liberal wing of the party.