The plot against Boris

Johnson is simply trying to confuse matters

Artillery Row

Boris Johnson is right. Nadine Dorries is right. You can’t trust Sue Gray’s report into Partygate. You could never trust it. Some of us said this at the time. It was always a stitch-up — but it wasn’t a Labour stitch-up.

The clue is at the bottom of page 18 of the report, when Gray is discussing the notorious “Abba party” of 13 November 2020. This was a week after the government had once again banned indoor gatherings. There was already a party downstairs in Downing Street that Friday evening. After making a speech at it, the then prime minister went upstairs to his flat, where five special advisers had piled-in with food and booze. There had been reports of a singalong. Gray said she had “considered whether or not to conduct any further investigation into this event but concluded it was not appropriate or proportionate to do so”. 

This isn’t about protecting a party; it’s about protecting the machine

This was plainly not the behaviour of someone who was desperately digging for dirt on Johnson. Quite the opposite. Gray’s report is the work of someone who was determined to leave stones unturned and questions unasked. Her conclusions were the bare minimum that could be reached. That they were still fairly damning was simply the result of the underlying facts being appalling: that, whilst refusing to let people visit dying relatives or attend funerals, government officials routinely spent the evening getting off their faces together. 

Having done the minimum, Gray stopped. This was why Johnson was able to claim her report as a vindication and tell Parliament that, except when it was impossible to deny the photographs showing him raising a glass of wine at a party, he hadn’t known what was happening in the building where he worked and lived. This was why, despite it being clear that civil servants had behaved reprehensibly, the Cabinet Secretary Simon Case kept his job, as did the prime minister’s spokesman, who had repeatedly given false answers to journalists’ questions for months. 

The Partygate report was a stitch-up, but not a party political one. No, it was an establishment stitch-up: don’t rock the boat; look after the people in power; never, if you can possibly avoid it, name names. 

Sue Gray’s long, long career has taken place in the background of British politics, always well out of shot. Someone who was publishing their memoirs once asked if she wanted to be in the acknowledgements. Absolutely not, she replied. That was the last thing she wanted. She prefers to work in ways that don’t leave records. She was for a long time the government expert on avoiding Freedom of Information requests. This isn’t about protecting one party or another; it’s about protecting the machine.

There are good reasons for Keir Starmer to hire Gray. She knows more about how Whitehall works than most people alive, and she’s an adept servant of her masters. She knows how to suppress difficult stories whilst staying, more or less, on the right side of the rules. Unlike Dominic Cummings, she won’t try to steal the limelight from her boss.

You would have to be very dim to think this story would help the Conservatives

As to whether hiring her muddies the water over Partygate, it’s hard to see why that would trouble Labour. You would have to be very dim indeed to think that putting this story back on the front pages would help the Conservatives. 

For Johnson, the calculation is slightly different. He’s not dim, and he must know that Parliament’s Privileges Committee is fixing-up to come down hard on him. That’s why he’s done his best to obstruct its work, ordering officials to submit evidence “so heavily redacted as to render them devoid of any evidential value” — something that the Cabinet Secretary, like Gray a pillar of the establishment, seems to have managed to go along with. 

With the blocking approach having failed, Johnson is simply trying to confuse matters with his complaints about Gray. He shows no sign of caring whether that damages the Conservatives. As ever, he has followers willing to demean themselves and hurt their own side by helping him. 

Nadine Dorries gave a long, long interview to Radio 4 on Friday alleging that Gray had been involved in some kind of conspiracy with Starmer over Partygate. There is one scenario that would fit the available facts: Labour, desperate to keep the chaotic and toxic Johnson in Number 10 so as to completely destroy the Conservative Party, induced Gray to water down her report so that he would survive. In return, she was promised a less secure job and a pay cut. Well, it’s a theory — but even if it’s true, anyone who knows Gray knows you’ll never be able to prove it. 

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