Johnson Gets Respite as U.K. Police Wait on Party Probe
Boris Johnson’s government will not face an investigation into alleged pandemic rule-breaking parties in Downing Street for now, police said, as the Times newspaper reported that an ongoing civil service inquiry is expected to conclude there was no criminality.
London’s Metropolitan Police left open the possibility of a criminal investigation in a statement late Thursday, saying officers would consider any evidence handed to them by the senior civil servant Sue Gray. But she’s not found enough evidence of criminality to refer the matter to police, the Times said.
If true, that would give Johnson considerable respite after the toughest week of his premiership, although the Times gave no indication as to how close to Gray its sources were. While a handful of Conservative members of Parliament have already called for him to go, many have said they will wait until Gray reports before deciding if they still back his leadership.
A formal police probe would have undermined still Johnson further.
The police had faced mounting pressure to get involved after it emerged Johnson had attended a drinks party in May 2020 when such gatherings were in breach of Covid-19 regulations. The prime minister told the House of Commons he thought it was a “work” event in his Downing Street garden.
It meant the police faced being dragged into a scenario with potentially huge political ramifications, and on Thursday its statement bought it some time.
“Officers do not normally investigate breaches of coronavirus regulations when they are reported long after they are said to have taken place,” the Metropolitan Police said. If Gray’s inquiry “identifies evidence of behavior that is potentially a criminal offense it will be passed to the Met for further consideration,” it said.
Reports of the May 20, 2020 party had followed a string of allegations of other potentially rule-breaking gatherings in Downing Street and Whitehall that year.
The Daily Telegraph on Friday added to the list of events, reporting that on the evening of April 16, 2021, two parties were held in Downing Street to mark the departures of two staffers, on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral. One of them was for James Slack, who was leaving his post as Johnson’s spokesman. At the time, indoor mixing between households was still banned.
Johnson’s office declined to comment on the report, beyond saying in a statement that Slack, on his last day, “gave a farewell speech to thank each team for the work they had done to support him, both those who had to be in the office for work and on a screen for those working from home.”
“We need to hear the full set of facts about this -- that particular evening, but also the other events and gatherings,” Security Minister Damian Hinds told BBC radio on Friday. He said it’s right to wait for Sue Gray’s report, and that her “findings will become public and they will rightly be subject to scrutiny.”
Slack, who is now the Sun’s deputy editor-in-chief, issued an apology in an emailed statement on Friday. “This event should not have happened at the time that it did,” he said. “I am deeply sorry, and take full responsibility.”
Amid the drip drip of allegations and with Gray’s report due, Johnson is relying relying on the U.K.’s emergence from a record wave of Covid infections to bolster his fortunes.
During his House of Commons appearance on Wednesday, Johnson sought to draw attention to the U.K.’s vaccination program, which he described as the “fastest booster roll-out in Europe” and enabled the country to be “one of the most open economies” in the region.
The premier has relied on lighter-touch Covid rules to contain the current outbreak than in previous waves, and the measures passed in December -- in the face of the biggest Tory revolt of his premiership -- are set to expire on Jan. 26. Johnson is likely to present the likely end of pandemic curbs as a key achievement of his government.
The government still plans a review of the rules -- which include mandatory Covid passes to gain access to venues and large events -- before they lapse. But Health Secretary Sajid Javid on Thursday indicated they won’t be renewed, telling Parliament he has an “instinctive discomfort” about them.
“We will not be keeping domestic certification in place a moment longer than absolutely necessary,” he said.
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