How long has Sue Gray been cosy with Keir? Boris Johnson’s ally Nadine Dorries claims Partygate civil servant’s evidence ‘can’t be relied upon’ until questions are answered about how long she has had ‘a personal relationship’ with the Labour leader
Conservative MPs continued to question Sir Keir Starmer’s appointment of Partygate enquiry boss Sue Gray as his new chief of staff last night, as long-time Boris Johnson allies asked how long the two had been discussing the job.
One of the former Prime Minister’s most loyal supporters Nadine Dorries said last night her evidence into the Partygate scandal ‘cannot be relied upon’ until MPs are given more information.
Tories have been left fuming at the announcement after a report released by the Commons privileges committee on Friday into Partygate cited Ms Gray or the findings of her investigation 26 times.
Mr Johnson’s allies have rallied behind him by questioning how the process – which could ultimately lead to him facing losing his seat as an MP – can still be credible.
They say it is ‘surreal’ that her report will form a key plank of the committee’s probe into whether he lied to MPs over lockdown-breaking gatherings.
One of the former Prime Minister’s most loyal supporters said last night Sue Gray’s (pictured) evidence into the Partygate scandal ‘cannot be relied upon’ until MPs are given more information
Ms Gray has been chosen by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer as his new chief of staff – but the appointment must be approved by body Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA)
Ultra-loyalist of Boris Johnson Nadine Dorries last night said MPs must be told how long Sir Keir has been in conversation with Ms Gray about the role
They claimed it showed Ms Gray’s Partygate probe was a ‘Left-wing stitch-up’ all along.
Former culture secretary under Mr Johnson Nadine Dorries said: ‘Sue Gray’s evidence cannot be relied upon in any meaningful way until we know how long Sue Gray has had a personal relationship with Keir Starmer and for how long they have been discussing Sue going to work for him as his most trusted and important adviser.’
Tory MP Peter Bone said: ‘The privileges committee has today admitted its key witness is none other than Sue Gray.
‘How can she possibly be called before the committee to answer all the points that it makes about her evidence – mentioning her dozens of times? This is a farce.’
Boris Johnson himself also came out fighting yesterday after the committee of MPs investigating Partygate claimed No 10 lockdown breaches would have been ‘obvious’.
It appeared to condemn Mr Johnson before he had given evidence, suggesting that ‘breaches of [lockdown] guidance would have been obvious to him at the time he was at the gatherings’.
The former PM insisted he had been ‘vindicated’ and there was ‘no evidence’ he had lied to Parliament.
The report suggested there was ‘evidence that the House of Commons may have been misled’ by Mr Johnson for telling it that ‘all guidance was followed completely’ during the gatherings.
But in his first major intervention since the committee launched its probe, the ex-PM insisted yesterday’s report contained ‘no evidence whatsoever’ that he lied to the Commons.
He added: ‘I believed that what we were doing was within the rules and that’s why I said what I said to Parliament. And I think what’s so interesting about the report today, is that after ten months of effort and sifting through all the innumerable WhatsApps and messages, they found absolutely no evidence to suggest otherwise.
‘The committee has produced a report which I believe totally vindicates me because there is no evidence whatsoever that when I stood up in Parliament I said anything I did not believe and therefore there is no contempt.’
He went on to say it was ‘surreal to discover that the 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’.
Ms Gray is facing questions about whether she broke civil service rules by not immediately declaring the approach she received from Labour
The committee’s report included previously unseen photographs of Downing Street gatherings, as well as messages between No 10’s then-communications director Jack Doyle and officials
Taking aim at Ms Gray’s report, he told Sky News: ‘It’s a peculiarity that the person who conducted the inquiry into what went on in No 10 and the Cabinet Office – who was presented to me as a person of complete political impartiality with absolutely no political axe to grind whatever – has just been appointed the chief of staff of the leader of the Labour Party.
‘I mean I make no comment about it, except to say that I’m sure that people may want to draw their own conclusions about the confidence they can place in her inquiry.
‘If you’d told me all the stuff I now know, I think I might have cross-examined her more closely about her independence and I might have invited her to reflect on whether she was really the right person to do it.’
Sue Gray hired three of eight-strong board to rule on her move to Labour
Sue Gray was on the panel that hired three members of the committee that will rule on her new job as Keir Starmer’s chief of staff.
Cabinet Office records reveal she was one of the four who selected the eight-strong Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA).
Tory critics have urged ACOBA to block her move to Labour, fearing she could use ‘privileged information’ such as that on ministers’ private lives to benefit the party.
Ms Gray helped select three members – Jonathan Baume, Dr Susan Liautaud and Richard Thomas – in 2018, who will now rule on whether her move should be allowed.
Labour and Ms Gray say they will comply with any ACOBA ruling.
Some civil servants are concerned her new role undermines Whitehall impartiality.
‘This is not good for the civil service and I hope that ACOBA will think very carefully about what restrictions to impose,’ a former permanent secretary told the Politico website.
The committee’s report included previously unseen photographs of Downing Street gatherings, as well as messages between No 10’s then-communications director Jack Doyle and officials in January last year, said to show they were ‘struggling’ to justify how events were within the rules.
The former PM will give evidence to the committee in the week beginning March 20.
Former business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg told Channel 4 News: ‘I’m surprised that the privileges committee wishes to judge the matter before it’s seen by the former prime minister. That seems an odd way to behave.’
Former levelling up secretary Simon Clarke added: ‘This whole affair raises really serious questions. The impartiality of the civil service is of the utmost importance for any functioning government.’
Ms Gray is facing questions about whether she broke civil service rules by not immediately declaring the approach she received from Labour – said to be ‘several months ago’ – or her acceptance of the job before seeking approval from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.
Sources have suggested the body, which vets job moves by ministers and senior civil servants, will recommend a short stint of gardening leave before she can join Labour, despite concerns that she could hand sensitive privileged information to the party.
A spokesman for the privileges committee said: ‘The committee’s report is not based on the Sue Gray report.
‘The committee’s report is based on evidence in the form of material supplied by the Government to the committee in November, including communications such as WhatsApps, emails and photographs from the official Downing Street photographer [and] evidence from witnesses who were present either at the time of the gatherings or at the time of preparation for Boris Johnson’s statements to parliament.’
Harman’s report lays out her case… but Boris says lack of any proof vindicates him
By Tom Witherow and David Churchill
The Commons Partygate inquiry yesterday released a 24-page report setting the scene for a blockbuster televised session with Boris Johnson.
The privileges committee said it had found evidence that Parliament ‘may have been misled’ by the former PM.
But Mr Johnson seized on the report to say he had been ‘vindicated’ and insisted it showed ‘the obvious truth … that I have not committed any contempt of Parliament’.
The MPs, led by Labour grandee Harriet Harman, will question the former PM later this month. If he is found in contempt he will face suspension from the Commons and could even lose his seat as an MP.
The report makes clear the committee believes Mr Johnson has a case to answer but it has reserved judgment until hearing from him in person. Here are the key findings.
The LOCKDOWN gatherings
Mr Johnson said there was no ‘evidence in the report that I was aware that any events taking place in No 10 or the Cabinet Office were in breach of the rules or the guidance’
The report details seven leaving-dos, birthday or Christmas celebrations and other gatherings between May 2020 and January 2021 where either the police or the committee determined lockdown guidance was broken.
The MPs received evidence that Mr Johnson told a leaving-do on November 27, 2020, that it was ‘probably the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now’. A witness claimed staff were stacked ‘four to five people deep’.
The rules at the time included restrictions on indoor gatherings of two or more people and required social distancing in the workplace wherever possible.
The report published a photo from January 2021, when the nation was in lockdown, showing the former PM in the Cabinet Office in front of a table with empty bottles of bubbly and beer. The Scotland Yard probe found that the event did breach the rules of the national lockdown in force at the time.
The report revealed that a No 10 official had shared fears in WhatsApp messages about ‘leaks of PM having a piss-up’, adding: ‘To be fair I don’t think it’s unwarranted.’ Other officials ‘struggled’ to come up with justification for events when challenged by the media.
A message from the PM’s communications chief, Jack Doyle, in January 2022, read: ‘Have we had any legal advice on the birthday one? Haven’t heard any explanation of how it’s in the rules.’
Later the same day, in relation to a gathering on June 19, 2020, he said: ‘I’m struggling to come up with a way this one is in the rules in my head.’ The report included fresh pictures of Mr Johnson raising a toast in front of a table of wine, spirits and a takeaway box at a leaving party on November 13, 2020. The photographs show that there was no social distancing,’ the report said.
‘The evidence strongly suggests that breaches of guidance would have been obvious to Mr Johnson at the time he was at the gatherings,’ it added.
In response Mr Johnson said there was no ‘evidence in the report that I was aware that any events taking place in No 10 or the Cabinet Office were in breach of the rules or the guidance’.
What Mr Johnson told Parliament
The committee has also combed over Mr Johnson’s statements to determine whether he misled MPs from the despatch box – and whether it was ‘inadvertent, reckless or intentional’.
At Prime Minister’s Questions on December 1, 2021, Mr Johnson said that ‘all guidance was followed in No 10’. A week later he replied to another question from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, saying: ‘I repeat what I have said to him: I have been repeatedly assured that the rules were not broken.’
The MPs on the committee – made up of four Tories, three Labour MPs and one SNP MP – gave a withering indication of their view. They said they would ‘consider why Mr Johnson told the House that no guidance had been broken in No 10’, adding that they would keep in mind that he ‘knew what the guidance was’ and that he ‘was in attendance at gatherings where the guidance was breached’.
But the former PM said: ‘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.
‘Nor is there any evidence in the report that I was aware that any events taking place in No 10 or the Cabinet Office were in breach of the rules or the guidance.’
Wide-ranging links to the Labour Party?
The extent of Sue Gray’s links to the Labour Party came under fresh scrutiny yesterday after it emerged that Keir Starmer boasted of knowing her ‘personally’.
A clip of an interview from January last year showed the Labour leader insisting Ms Gray had ‘huge integrity and huge respect’.
This was because he knew her on a personal level, he explained. ‘The first thing I should say, full disclosure, I know Sue Gray because I was director of public prosecutions,’ he told LBC radio.
‘She was a senior civil servant, so I know her personally.’
Ms Gray’s son, Liam Conlon, is also a senior Labour activist. He is deputy chairman of the Lewisham West and Penge branch in south London.
A picture posted on Twitter by Mr Conlon in May 2018 shows him at a parliamentary event with Ms Gray, ex-Labour cabinet minister Tessa Jowell and Labour peer Doreen Lawrence.
Ms Gray has her arm around Ms Jowell, suggesting she knew her on a personal level.
And in her new role working as Sir Keir’s chief of staff, Ms Gray will be reunited with Labour Party press officer Leila McIntyre, who worked in Downing Street while Ms Gray was preparing her Partygate report.
He said he ‘relied upon advice from officials’ and that ‘there is no evidence that I was later advised that any such event was contrary to requirements’.
The report also said: ‘Boris Johnson did not correct the statements that he repeatedly made and did not use the well-established procedures of the House to correct something that is wrong at the earliest opportunity.’
In response he said: ‘When I told the House that the rules and the guidance had been followed, that was my honest belief.’
He did apologise in May 2022 for breaches, telling MPs: ‘I take full responsibility for everything that took place on my watch.’
Links to Sue Gray
Former senior civil servant Ms Gray carried out the official investigation into the lockdown-breaking Downing Street parties during the pandemic. Published last May, her investigation detailed how officials drank so much they were sick, sang karaoke, became involved in altercations and abused staff.
She criticised ‘failures of leadership and judgment’ in No 10 and said ‘the senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility’.
But her resignation on Thursday to take up a political job as Sir Keir’s chief of staff prompted claims from Tory MPs that her inquiry was a Labour ‘stitch-up’.
The privileges committee yesterday defended its investigation, saying it was ‘not based on the Sue Gray report’ but on evidence including witnesses, WhatsApps, emails and official Downing Street photographs.
But Mr Johnson hit back, saying it was ‘concerning’ that the inquiry into whether he lied to MPs relied on evidence from Ms Gray’s findings because she will now be working for Labour. He noted there were 26 references to her in the committee’s new report.
The committee has called Mr Johnson to give evidence in person in the week beginning March 20. The former PM chose to ignore a call for a written submission issued in July.
The committee said it ‘reserves the right’ to hold more hearings before it finally decides whether the former PM is in contempt. It will present a report to all MPs and, if Mr Johnson is found guilty, they will vote on a sanction.
If the punishment is a suspension from the House of Commons for ten days or more, Mr Johnson will be subjected to a recall petition in his constituency. This could force him to re-contest his west London seat at a by-election.
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