“WAIT for Sue Gray” has been the mantra of government ministers loyal to the beleaguered Prime Minister. Their hope was that when the senior civil servant’s report on Downing Street’s lockdown partying was published, it would find Boris Johnson not guilty of misleading Parliament and lying to the electorate.
Waiting for Sue Gray has echoes of Waiting for Godot, which one critic famously described as “a play in which nothing happens”. Ms Gray was charged with uncovering the facts behind the revelations that there were no fewer than 12 rule-breaking lockdown parties in Whitehall: seven in Downing Street and others in the Cabinet Office, Treasury, Department of Transport, and Department for Education, as well as Conservative Central Office.
Yet, as Lord Kerslake, who is a former head of the Civil Service, pointed out, this placed Ms Gray in an invidious, if not impossible, position. “Constitutionally, we haven’t been in a position before where a senior civil servant has actively sacked a Prime Minister — and if she came up with the sentence [that found Boris Johnson guilty], she could do that. Therefore, she won’t come up with that sentence,” Lord Kerslake concluded. The Johnson loyalists knew that.
The truth is that Tory MPs did not need to wait for a report detailing the facts of who was at what party and when. They already had all the facts that they needed. The decision that they had to make was moral and political, not factual. Mr Johnson had repeatedly told the House of Commons that he had no knowledge of any parties. Then he was forced to admit that he had been to one — to which those invited had been told to “bring your own booze”. This was misleading, to say the very least.
Ms Gray, whatever her report said, would offer no answer to this. A civil servant in her position sends her report to the Prime Minister. The great weakness in the ministerial code, in the words of the constitutional historian Lord Hennessy, is that “it rests on the assumption that the Prime Minister himself . . . is not a wrong’un.” The code is designed to deal with untruthful ministers; if it is the Prime Minister who is the guilty one, then “the whole system breaks down.”
Johnson loyalists who insisted on waiting for Sue Gray were either cynically self-serving or else their moral compass has been demagnetised by too close a proximity to our amoral Prime Minister.
The public was not fooled by Mr Johnson’s assertion that he thought that the party was “a work event”. Public mockery has been caustic and contemptuous. The Conservatives have fallen 13 points behind Labour in the polls. There is “massive anger” among grass-roots Conservatives: one poll showed that 40 per cent were convinced that the PM should resign. Tory MPs have been inundated with emails, in numbers “off the scale”, from voters bewildered about what has happened to the good sense and decency on which Britain’s unwritten constitution has traditionally rested.
The full quotation about Waiting for Godot — referring to the way in which its second act plays a mordant variation on the action of the first — is that it is “a play in which nothing happens, twice”. Many Conservative MPs increasingly fear that doing nothing twice will lead to electoral disaster.