From the moment the prime minister was revealed to have attended a party in the height of lockdown in May 2020 his line of defence has been the same – we have to “wait for the enquiry”.
Usually, most people know whether they have attended a party, Ed Miliband famously quipped, while others have been quick to lampoon the excuse that he thought it was a ‘work event’.
So the “Grey suits wait for Gray, Sue”, as Paul Goodman comically put it, and the mainstream media obediently lap up the narrative that justice is just around the corner.
But a closer look into the ‘enquiry’ shows that its scope and remit may actually hand Boris Johnson the ‘get out of jail free’ card he has been waiting for.
Far from delivering the fatal blow we expect, it is actually being designed to turn the biggest scandal of the year into tomorrow’sfish and chip paper.
Here’s how they plan to do it:
Who is Sue Gray?
Sue Gray was described as “the most powerful person you’ve never heard of” in a 2015 BBC article. They also dubbed her one of the “most secretive”.
Chris Cook, who was policy editor at Newsnight at the time, said Ms Gray’s influence “is astounding” in the piece because she effectively decides which documents may or may not be published.
He highlights one case in 2011 when she advised Michael Gove, then education secretary, that email sent in private email accounts on government business was exempt from transparency laws.
He had been using his wife’s email account for departmental business. Ms Gray did so over the telephone, but also followed up with an explanatory email.
If data is not stored on servers accessible to officials, she wrote, it “seems obvious that they cannot ‘hold’ it for the purpose of the Act”, she wrote.
A report into what?
Speaking to The London Economic, a seasoned barrister says Gray’s report could be a classic “bait and switch trick” because it has been positioned as a “full-blown judiciary enquiry that will establish guilt and answer the question of whether Boris is fit to carry on as prime minister when in reality it could turn out to be nothing of the kind”.
From the outset, it is unclear what the terms of reference of the report are and what specific questions Gray has been asked to look into, which is an odd approach.
We also don’t know whether she has been asked to see whether the Civil Service Code has been breached, the Ministerial Code has been breached or whether laws have been breached, which could provide a convenient let-off.
As our barrister notes, Gray has “never been the gatekeeper of the ministerial code”.
“You can’t be found guilty if they don’t ask the question.”
A simple sleight of hand
Concerns have also been raised over whether the government is marking its own homework on the matter.
As a government employee, Gray isn’t independent. Usually, an independent body would publish findings on investigations such as this, but a simple sleight of hand has allowed the government to make this look like something it isn’t.
We also don’t know whether those implicated will get advance sight of the report and will have a right to comment or even change it.
And the public may not get the full version of the report, which is cause for concern.
It is, as our barrister said, a “very unusual procedure to use for this investigation” by allowing the Cabinet Office to look into the prime minister.
So unusual, in fact, that it may just be the thing that lets him off the hook.
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