Sue Gray's report gives MPs the ammunition they need for a vote of no confidence

If Boris Johnson does not go now, the Conservative Party will pay the price

January 31, 2022
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Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers a statement to MPs in the House of Commons on the Sue Gray report. 31st January 2022. Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Theresa May had all the suppressed anger of a woman repeatedly betrayed as she rose to her feet in the House of Commons and called out Boris Johnson after the publication of the Sue Gray report. “Either [he] had not read the rules, or didn’t understand what they meant… or they didn’t think the rules applied to No 10, which was it?” she asked her successor. It was a spine-tingling attack on the Conservative leader. Just moments later, Andrew Mitchell, the former chief whip who supported Johnson for the leadership, stood up and declared that he “no longer enjoys my support.”

The silence on the Tory benches as Keir Starmer denounced the prime minister as “a man without shame” spoke volumes. With brutal precision, Johnson was bombarded by attacks from his own side. One Conservative MP, Aaron Bell, described how he attended his grandmother’s funeral at which only 10 people were allowed. “I was not able to hug my siblings, I didn’t hug my parents, I gave a eulogy. Afterwards I didn’t even go to her house for a cup of tea… Does the prime minister think I’m a fool?”

Other MPs were furious when their leader initially refused to guarantee that the final Gray report, held back until the police inquiry is concluded, would be published in full—a position that was within hours reversed by No 10.

The prime minister also failed to satisfy many on his own side when he did not answer the question about whether he had attended a party in the No 10 flat, which is now being investigated by the police. Previously, Johnson had denied from the Commons despatch box that the flat party had taken place.

The prime minister hopes he has bought some time because Gray’s overall findings have been delayed. But he has made no friends, even as he told MPs: “I get it and I will fix it.” He promised a shake-up of No 10, but one senior Conservative told me that is pointless without a transformation at the top: “He says he’s just got to change the people around him and it will all be great, but the only thing that can change the environment around Boris Johnson is to remove Boris Johnson.”

Even without the most damaging details, the “update” published today by Gray was damning. There were, the senior civil servant concludes, “failures of leadership and judgment” over the gatherings in No 10. Gray did not name Boris Johnson but her comments point directly to the prime minister. In the end, “leadership” can only come from the top. Gray must have known that by using this word she was implicating the Tory leader.

It is not for an official to decide on the legality of what happened, but Gray has made absolutely clear that, in her view at least, some of the events were wrong. In her report, Gray is scathing about the culture in No 10 during the pandemic. “When the government was asking citizens to accept far-reaching restrictions on their lives, some of the behaviour surrounding these gatherings is difficult to justify,” she writes.

She refers to “gatherings” and “events” rather than “parties,” but is categorical that what went on was unacceptable. At least some of the gatherings “represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time.” Some of the events “should not have been allowed to take place.” Others “should not have been allowed to develop as they did.”

The excessive consumption of alcohol is “not appropriate” in a professional workplace, she writes, yet a wine fridge was installed in No 10. Staff felt “unable” to raise concerns. “No member of staff should feel unable to report or challenge poor conduct where they witness it.” There has been a “blurring of lines of accountability” in Downing Street.

MPs who have been waiting for Gray to report before deciding whether to trigger a vote of no confidence in their leader have the ammunition they need. If they decide not to use it, they will pay the price at the next election. For the voters, this will only confirm what they already believed—that at a time of exceptional national crisis, the prime minister and his team behaved as if the rules did not apply to them.