By Jill Lawless – The Associated Press
LONDON ( Associated Press) – As he fights for his career, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes a relentless refrain: wait for Sue Grey.
Gray is a senior but previously unclear civil servant who may take Johnson’s political future into his own hands. They have the task of investigating allegations that the prime minister and his staff attended lockdown-violating parties on government property.
Gray is due to report by the end of the month over claims of government employees slept late into the night, “bring your own wine” parties and “wine time Fridays” while Britain was under coronavirus restrictions in 2020 and 2021 . The allegations have sparked public anger, incredulity and ridicule, and prompted some in the governing Conservative Party to demand Johnson’s resignation.
The prime minister made a regrettable, cautious apology in parliament last week, but stopped short of admitting the rule-breaking and urged everyone to wait for Grey’s decision.
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Alex Thomas, a program director at the Institute for Government, said those expecting reports of “cleaning up or giving a damn to the prime minister” would probably be disappointed.
“This is a huge political and broader public issue,” he said. “The Gray Report is an important part of finding out what happened. But in the end it is a decision for Conservative cabinet ministers and MPs whether they want Boris Johnson to lead their party and therefore lead the country.”
Gray is investigating a dozen alleged gatherings held between May 2020 and April 2021, most at the Prime Minister’s Downing Street office-cum-residence. There was a party when people in Britain were banned from visiting or visiting sick relatives in hospitals. Another came on the eve of Prince Philip’s socially distanced funeral, at which widow Queen Elizabeth II was forced to sit alone in church.
Gray’s job is to uncover facts about the meetings and whether they broke any rules. He has “all relevant records” and the power to interview officials, including Johnson. The Prime Minister’s Office has not confirmed that Gray has questioned Johnson, although Education Secretary Nadim Zahvi said Johnson had “submitted himself” to Gray’s investigation.
Gray can establish “whether individual disciplinary action is warranted” against officers, and London’s Metropolitan Police Force says it can launch an investigation if it finds evidence of breaking the law.
Crucially though, Gray has limited space to condemn Johnson himself. Usually, the Civil Service Inquiry makes recommendations to the Prime Minister. In this case it is the prime minister who is being investigated, making Johnson the arbiter of his sentence.
Interrogation is an unusually high-profile assignment for a woman who wields power behind the scenes. According to a brief biography on the government website, Gray has served both Labor and Conservative governments over several decades, starting in the 1980s when he ran a pub in Northern Ireland.
As the head of “justification and ethics” in the Cabinet Office, he has investigated past allegations of wrongdoing by ministers, including sexual misconduct claims against then-Deputy Prime Minister Damien Greene in 2017 who had to resign as a result. was forced to.
Within the government, Gray is regarded as a straight shooter to stand up to politicians. But his role in keeping government secrets has been criticized by campaigners for freedom of information. The previous role included scrutinizing the memoirs of officers to ensure no secrets were spread, and accused them of obstructing freedom of information requests.
Thomas, who knows Grey, said she would not enjoy the spotlight.
“You don’t normally join the civil service to be a household name,” he said. “That said, he’s a resilient person.”
Johnson’s office says the prime minister will “accept what he establishes,” but would not say what action he might take after Gray’s report. He has previously overlooked similar civil-service investigations: In 2020, Johnson backed Home Secretary Priti Patel after an investigation concluded he had bullied his employees.
British media reported on Monday that the prime minister is planning to sack senior officials and aides to save his skin if Grey’s report is serious – a plan dubbed “Operation Save Big Dog”.
Johnson’s spokesman Max Blaine dismissed the reports, saying he had “never heard that word used.” He also denied that the government was deploying “Operation Red Meat” – calling out attention-grabbing policy measures to distract from the party’s claims.
The government has unquestionably made a flurry of recent announcements, which are likely to appeal to Conservative lawmakers, who may falter in support of Johnson. These include plans to cut taxpayer support for the BBC; Resolve to deploy the army to stop migrants crossing the English Channel from France in small boats; And the intention to lift remaining coronavirus restrictions next week.
“Partygate” has helped the opposition Labor Party hold a double-digit opinion poll lead over the Conservatives. Johnson will not face a voter’s decision until the next general election, scheduled for 2024. But the Conservative Party has a history of kicking out leaders when they become debtors.
Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, was ousted in 2019 after failing to secure acceptable Brexit divorce terms with the European Union. Johnson could face the same fate if the party decides his popular appeal – the star quality that has seen him bounce back from past scandals – has vanished.
Under conservative rules, a vote of no confidence in the leader can be triggered if 54 of the party’s legislators write letters demanding it. It is unclear how many have already been submitted, and so far only a handful of parliamentarians have openly called for Johnson to step down.
Many others are waiting to see what Gray has to say, and how the public reacts.
Conservative MP Andrew Bowie told the BBC: “The atmosphere within the Conservative Party is a mixture of shame, anger and despair.” “There is a real anger and sense of despair within the party, and I think many MPs are grappling with decisions they may have to take in the next few weeks.”
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