Boris Johnson and Sue Gray have clashed over a controversial “secret meeting” between the pair, just days before her report into the Partygate scandal.
The senior civil servant’s team are furious about a No 10 claim that she initiated the get-together and that it focused on whether some of 300 photos of the lockdown parties should be included in her report.
A spokesperson for the Gray inquiry rejected both suggestions and denied the meeting was for her “to clarify her intentions” for publication, once the police investigation concluded.
The extraordinary briefing war will increase pressure on Downing Street to explain why the meeting was held at all, about an inquiry it calls “completely independent”.
Labor has warned what it calls a “secret meeting” will further damage confidence in the investigation of the scandal, while the Liberal Democrats raised fears of “a stitch up”.
The prime minister is among around 30 people who have been told by Ms Gray that the report is likely to name them – with a deadline of Sunday evening for them to lodge any objections.
Publication is expected on Tuesday or Wednesday, after the Metropolitan Police announced it had concluded its investigation with a total of 126 fines issued to 83 people.
No 10 has suggested the meeting – around one month ago – discussed whether the photos, handed over to the Met probe should be included in Ms Gray’s report.
This is rejected by the Gray team, which is astonished that Downing Street has sought to give the impression that she initiated the talks, The Independent understands.
Mr Johnson has said he wants as much information disclosed as possible, but No 10 has said “data protection” requirements might require some to be held back.
The issue of releasing the photos is said to be “a live question” – but they are likely to be demanded by the Commons inquiry into whether the prime minister lied to MPs regardless.
Angela Rayner, Labor’s deputy leader said: “Boris Johnson must urgently explain why he held a secret meeting with Sue Gray to discuss her report despite claiming her investigation was completely independent.
“Public confidence in the process is already depleted, and people deserve to know the truth. The Sue Gray report must be published in full and with all accompanying evidence.”
Christine Jardine, a Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesperson, said: “Any whiff of a stitch up would make an absolute mockery of the report. This meeting must be explained.”
A No 10 spokesperson said: “The PM did not request the meeting and hasn’t tried to influence the outcome in anyway. It’s rightly for Sue to decide and it’s all done independently.”
However, the phrasing of the statement appeared to leave open that the meeting had been requested by a Downing Street official, if not by the prime minister himself.