The official line — to which senior coppers and queasy-looking cabinet ministers alike have been clinging like mariners to Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa — is that it would be “inappropriate” to take any action over Downing Street’s many, many illegal lockdown parties until Sue Gray has completed her investigation.
This at least buys them time. And they are not using that time idly. For I’ve noticed something rather weaselly going on, rhetorically. The PM’s supporters are spinning like mad to frame the results of that investigation. Indeed, there has already been a purported leak of the results of the investigation, claiming that it’s “not expected to find evidence of criminality” — which is quite something since that leak came 24 hours or so before the latest batch of parties came to light.
Most sober and informed commentators predict that Gray — as is proper for a civil servant — will stick closely to a modest brief. She will establish as well as she is able the facts of what happened: which parties took place, who knew about them, whether there was any snogging, and whether they had those slightly sweaty tubs of mini-sausages or just Hula-Hoops. She will likely make clear where rules were breached. But she’s not expected, and nor should she be, to conclude her report with instructions on which non-civil-service heads should roll and in what direction.
So all those articles applying hackneyed phrases like “judge and jury” to Gray, or that claim that she holds the PM’s fate in the balance, are doing the No 10 spinners’ work for them. They leave civilians like you and me with the impression — which in expectation-management terms is exactly what the Prime Minister would like — that Sue Gray’s will be the final word on the matter.
In effect, if her report does not contain a direct personal condemnation of the Prime Minister, they will claim that she has exonerated him. Deputy heads will roll, and it will then be “inappropriate” to return to the subject because we’ll want to “get on with the job” of “delivering the real priorities that matter to the people of this country”. We will have gone from refusing to pre-empt her findings to drawing a line under them faster than a Wotsit vanishes in the garden of Number 10.
But she is not a judge and jury. Exoneration of the PM, or otherwise, isn’t her job. If we’re going to stick to the legal imagery, she’s more like the discovery process, or the compiler of the charge sheet that goes to the Crown Prosecution Service. When her report is published, that’s not the point at which the jury is discharged and everybody goes home. That’s the point at which the jury (in this case the parliamentary Conservative party, the 1922 Committee, constituency associations and, we can dream, the slumbering giant that is the Metropolitan Police) is empaneled.
Knowing even what is already in the public domain about what went on, I have a strong hunch as to what that jury should say — but, y’know, it would be inappropriate to go further until we’ve heard from Sue Gray.