So, it all comes down to this. The colourful and charismatic career of Boris Johnson will be determined once and for all in a very factual black-and-white report from a senior civil servant charged with investigating a culture of carousing and carefree contravention of Covid rules.
Sue Gray’s report might provide the wounded Prime Minister with a modicum of cover behind which he might somehow hold out holding on for a while longer, the British public have made up their mind. And so too a growing list of Conservative Members of Parliament that believe Boris has to go.
The opinion poll numbers are pretty damning. Nearly 70 per cent of Britons believe Johnson lied and is no longer fit to lead the country. The opposition Labour party has opened up a 10-point lead over the ruling Conservatives — its biggest lead in more than a decade — and that lead is growing by the week, or certainly with every new report that emerges of drinks, parties and gatherings across Whitehall while the rest of the UK was locked down, kept apart or ordered not to mingle and mix.
Just not in Downing Street.
Highest death rate
There are so many parties now that it’s hard to keep track of when there wasn’t one — and this in a nation where the Johnson government faced claims it was failing to act quickly or severely enough to stem the spread of coronavirus. And this too in a nation that has the highest death rate from Covid 19 in Europe.
Gray is described in some quarters of Whitehall as “the most powerful person you’ve never heard of” — a label that seems ominously true for Johnson given that she is examining evidence around the social soirées that appear to be prima facie breaches of pandemic legislation.
Boris might have thought some of the gatherings were work meetings, but she will judge whether they were boozy bashes or business brunches. Boris, by his own admission to Parliament, seemingly can’t tell the difference.
Dominic Cummings, once Johnson’s right-hand man, seemingly could, and says he warned the PM that the drinks gatherings were illegal and he needed to stop them. Cummings says he’s willing to swear under oath to that effect — as are other very senior staff at Number 10 — and give evidence to Gray.
When it was announced, the Gray inquiry was due to look at gatherings inside Downing Street on 27 November and 18 December 2020, as well as one at the Department for Education on 10 December.
If only. Now she is looking at numerous events that have added to a general feeling across the UK that there was one rule for those in Downing Street and another for everyone else. Rules that kept loved ones from saying a final goodbye to thousands who died from Covid during the long party season in the corridors of power.
Two separate parties
And perhaps the report that has done most harm is that of two separate parties at the office complex that is the PM’s residence in the evening and long into the night on 16 April 2021 — the eve before Queen Elizabeth said a formal, lonely and stoic ceremonial farewell at the funeral of Prince Philip.
For that, Johnson has formally apologised to the Queen. And for that alone, he has earned so much scorn from the monarchy-loving British public that it’s hard to see his image ever recover even if he is somehow to survive this septic pit of scandal.
Gray’s team will look at “all relevant records” and be allowed to “speak to members of staff” as witnesses. Yes, that means looking through reams of emails, electronic schedules, calendar invites and mobile phone apps to determine what went on where. And who was there.
Downing Street is certainly one of the most secure complexes anywhere in the world, protecting the political leadership of the UK.
And that means that every corner of the complex is covered by CCTV — certainly enough to show the whereabouts of Boris at almost every moment once outside his private apartments.
Yes, and there are logs of comings and goings, electronic footprints too left by personnel identification badges that are commonplace in most office environments.
While no timescale for the report has been set, there were some reports that it could come as soon as this weekend. Act too hastily and there are fears it may not be complete. Act too tardily and there are fears of a cover-up.
A political quagmire
Any wait prolongs the scandal that has paralysed the government and merely affords the likelihood that there are more damning revelations that will further sink Boris into the political quagmire.
But civil service inquiries do take time. An internal inquiry into allegations of staff bullying by Home Secretary Priti Patel took six months, while those around MP Damian Green and pornographic images on his work computer lasted about two months.
Remember, the Gray inquiry does not have the judicial powers of parliamentary or independent inquiry. Instead, it will be a methodical gathering of facts likely presented in a very unequivocal fashion, devoid of extraneous detail or embellishment. And it is the work of the Cabinet Office — and therefore the prime minister — who has the final say.
But should Johnson be tempted to redact or temper its words, alter its facts or render a William Barr-like suppression of the most damning of details, there is a grave peril that the original report would be leaked — most certainly sealing the PM’s fate were that to indeed happen and become known.
This work, this 50 shades of Gray, is the most hotly anticipated publishing event in years. Most Brits, however, have already made up their minds. It’s pretty black-and-white to them.