For a few hours after the Metropolitan Police said they were investigating the Downing Street parties, some of Boris Johnson’s admirers at Westminster allowed themselves to believe it might be good news for him. The prime minister’s official spokesman suggested that cabinet office official Sue Gray might not be able to publish her full report until the police investigation was finished, delaying it by weeks or even months.
With many Conservative MPs saying they would wait until Gray reported before deciding whether to move against Johnson, could the police investigation buy the prime minister time during which external events such as those in Ukraine might move attention away from the Downing Street parties? It was always a long shot but even this fragment of hope was snatched away by late afternoon when it became clear that the Met police saw no reason for Gray to delay, and neither did she.
Gray has been liaising with the police throughout her inquiry and it was what she uncovered that persuaded them to launch an investigation. Met police commissioner Cressida Dick said they only started retrospective investigations into the “most serious flagrant type of breach” of coronavirus regulations.
This pulls the rug from under one of the central arguments in Johnson’s defence – that whatever rule-breaking that happened in Downing Street was not serious enough to justify his resignation. It also removes any doubt about how damaging Gray’s findings will be for Johnson and his government.
News of the police investigation came hours after it was reported that Johnson’s wife Carrie, interior decorator Lulu Lytle and up to 30 others attended a birthday party for him in the cabinet room during lockdown. Conservative MPs are increasingly weary of a scandal that has seen new revelations on at least a weekly basis and some fear further bombshells after Gray reports.
The police have stronger investigative powers and resources than the cabinet office so they are likely to turn up more details than Gray and their investigation will ensure that the Downing Street parties remain in the news. Johnson may have hoped to draw a line under the scandal by publishing Gray’s report, apologising profusely, sacking some Downing Street staff and appointing some new aides to facilitate a government reset.
The police investigation has made that impossible because it means that Gray’s report will not be the end of the story and Johnson’s MPs may soon conclude that the quickest route to closure is by drawing a line under his premiership.