The Independent

Johnson is using Gray exit to distract from this report


Sue Gray damaged her reputation for impartiali­ty by taking the job of Keir Starmer’s chief of staff. If she didn’t realise it when she made the decision, she knows it now. Boris Johnson, desperate to use anything to defend himself, has seized on her “defection” to the Labour Party to set off a firestorm.

His attempt to exploit her departure is unconvinci­ng. Gray was the civil servant who carried out the initial internal inquiry into lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street, but the fines that were imposed on officials and on Johnson himself were decided by the Metropolit­an Police after its own further investigat­ion.

So, the allegation that Gray’s inquiry was tainted by her subsequent change of loyalty doesn’t add up, but that hasn’t stopped Johnson from claiming that two and two make five. “It is surreal to discover,” Johnson said in a statement yesterday, that the privileges committee “proposes to rely on evidence culled and orchestrat­ed by Sue Gray, who has just been appointed Chief of Staff to the Leader of the Labour Party.”

He is directly contradict­ed by yesterday’s disclosure from the committee of new evidence of lockdown-breaking parties that Johnson should have known about, which comes from its own inquiries – and indeed from pictures taken by Johnson’s own photograph­er – and owes nothing to Gray. And this is a committee with a Conservati­ve majority, remember.

We all know what Johnson is up to: trying to distract people from the damning evidence against him. But Gray need not have handed him the ammunition. Her new job – still to be approved, of course – casts doubt on her impartiali­ty and thus damages the integrity of the civil service as a whole.

This is bad for Gray and bad for the civil service, but good for Starmer, who not only acquires someone of ability who knows how Whitehall works, but whose appointmen­t has triggered a wave of media coverage of reprehensi­ble conduct by the Conservati­ve government.

With his usual brass neck, Johnson has responded to the committee’s document by claiming ‘there is no evidence in the report that I knowingly or recklessly misled parliament’

Rishi Sunak must be in despair, having enjoyed a few days of rare favourable coverage for securing a deal on Northern Ireland, that the moral failings of his predecesso­r but one are being aired again. Our new prime minister was gradually clawing back some credibilit­y on the ethical front, having appointed an adviser on ministeria­l interests, and having sacked Nadhim Zahawi on that adviser’s advice, but now everyone is reminded once again that Sunak himself was fined for attending an illegal gathering at the same time as Johnson – and that he was fined when he was prime minister for failing to wear a seat belt.

There is more of this to come. Yesterday’s publicatio­n by the privileges committee of some of the things it wants to ask Johnson about contains a number of striking instances of No 10 officials struggling to explain how gatherings, including those attended by Johnson, could be within the rules. A WhatsApp message from one official says that another official is “worried about leaks of PM having a piss-up and to be fair I don’t think it’s unwarrante­d”.

With his usual brass neck, Johnson has responded to the committee’s document by claiming “there is no evidence in the report that I knowingly or recklessly misled parliament, or that I failed to update parliament in a timely manner”. In fact that is

the opposite of what the report suggests, and Johnson’s choice of words is telling. He may be right that there is no direct evidence that he “knowingly” misled parliament because it is possible that he sincerely believed all the boozy gatherings he attended as “reasonably necessary for work purposes”.

But the key words are “knowingly” and “recklessly”. He didn’t know he was misleading parliament because he tried quite hard not to find out. He didn’t ask whether what he did was within the rules because he didn’t want to hear the answer. He didn’t try to find out about other gatherings that he hadn’t attended in case someone told him. Most people would say he was, therefore, reckless as to whether he was telling the truth to parliament or not, but his defence is, essentiall­y, that he had more important things to do than to find out if he had told the truth or not.

It is such a feeble defence that it is easy to see why he is trying so hard to throw up any other irrelevant material to try to obscure the facts. Gray should not have given him the chance to create such a diversion, although I don’t think any of this drama is going to divert the committee from what was always likely to be its conclusion: that Johnson was indeed reckless as to whether or not he misled the House of Commons, and that he should apologise. I don’t think there was ever any prospect that he would be punished severely enough to trigger a recall petition and a by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

But between now and that inevitable conclusion, there will be a lot of unhelpful and colourful material about lockdown-breaking parties provided to keep journalist­s busy and to make Sunak’s task of cleaning up the Conservati­ve Party’s reputation so much harder.

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 ?? (Reuters) ?? The former prime minister in London yesterday as more accounts of l ockdown breaches emerged
(Reuters) The former prime minister in London yesterday as more accounts of l ockdown breaches emerged
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