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‘Serious failure in leadership’ — what civil servant’s probe on UK PM’s lockdown parties found

After release of Sue Gray's report Monday, 12 lockdown-breaking gatherings held at Boris Johnson's official workplace/residence at No.10 Downing Street are under police probe.

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New Delhi: Twelve lockdown-breaking gatherings held at United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office and official residence, No.10 Downing Street, are now under investigation by police, following the release of a government report Monday, based on the findings of senior civil servant Sue Gray, which said the gatherings reflected “a serious failure” in leadership.

Johnson faced criticism from all political parties in Parliament late Monday night over the report’s findings, including from fellow Conservative Party MPs.

The highly anticipated government report , now colloquially known as the ‘Sue Gray report’ was based on interviews of over 70 individuals, and examination of emails, WhatsApp messages, texts, photographs, building entry and exit logs, and searches of official records. The gatherings in question took place between May 2020 and April 2021 during a Covid-induced lockdown in the country.

One of the gatherings at No.10 Downing Street was a “bring your own booze” event.

On 12 January, ahead of the report’s release, Johnson issued an apology in the House of Commons regarding the controversy, saying he “believed implicitly that this was a work event”. Johnson himself was infected with virus in April 2020, and had to be hospitalised.

ThePrint explains who is Sue Gray, the main takeaways of her report, timeline of the partygate scandal and what it means for Boris Johnson’s leadership.

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Who is Sue Gray?

Senior civil servant Sue Gray has been in charge of the ‘partygate’ investigation since December, after UK’s top civil servant Simon Case quit following reports that a drinks gathering was held in his office. Gray serves as the Second Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office.

She has previously served as the director general of the propriety and ethics team, between 2012 to 2018.

This is not the first high profile case Gray has handled. In 2017, former prime minister Theresa May tasked her with investigating Conservative MP Damian Green, over allegations that he had lied about the presence of pornographic material on his government-issued computer.

Main takeaways of the Sue Gray ‘party’ report

1. Some gatherings held at No.10 Downing Street, the PM’s official residence, attended by the Prime Minister and Cabinet Office staff, reflected “a serious failure” of leadership.

2. Due to limitations brought on by the ongoing police investigation, this is not a “meaningful report”, Gray stated. “I am extremely limited in what I can say about those events and it is not possible at present to provide a meaningful report setting out and analysing the extensive factual information I have been able to gather,” she wrote.

3. Some gatherings at No.10 Downing Street were termed inappropriate with “little thought” given to difficulties faced by the British public amid the pandemic.

4. “Excessive consumption of alcohol” is not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time. It’s “difficult to justify” some of the behaviour at these events, the report added.

5. During the investigation, it was found that some staff wanted to raise concerns about behaviour they witnessed at work, but at times felt unable to do so.

6. The report suggested improvement of leadership structures in the Prime Minister’s office. “Too much responsibility and expectation is placed on the senior official whose principal function is the direct support of the Prime Minister. This should be addressed as a matter of priority,” Sue Gray noted.

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How did the scandal emerge?

On 30 November 2021, UK newspaper Daily Mirror published a report alleging that large parties of “40 to 50” people took place at No.10 Downing Street in the run-up to Christmas in 2020. The country was in the grip of a second lockdown at the time.

More media reports began to emerge that it was not just in the fall of 2020, but in the summer of that year too, that large gatherings were held. Soon, a photograph from 15 May 2020, of Johnson eating cheese and drinking wine at a large social event in the garden of the official residence, emerged.

In December 2021, an email invitation for a BYOB “socially distanced drinks” sent to 100 people was leaked.

On 13 January 2022, it was reported that a chaotic party, involving filling a suitcase with wine, took place on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral at No.10 Downing Street. Johnson apologised to Queen Elizabeth a day later.

The Sue Gray report covered 16 gatherings that took place between 15 May 2020 to 16 May 2021, with multiple occurring on the same day.

Many social events were held in the garden of No.10 Downing Street and some in the PM’s flat. During this period, three national lockdowns were imposed and gatherings were held even during Christmas in 2020, despite government guidance specifically discouraging having “a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity”.

Some gatherings were held on the departure of staff members and one was held on the Prime Minister’s birthday.

What does this mean for Boris Johnson’s leadership?

The growing controversy has caused Johnson’s poll ratings to plummet over the past few weeks. A recent survey found over 70 per cent of UK citizens were dissatisfied with the Prime Minister, up five points since December. This is close to former PM Theresa May’s lowest rating in her final months in office.

Johnson’s authority has also been undermined within his own party when in December, almost 100 Conservative MPs voted against introducing Covid vaccine passports.

An investigation by The Telegraph into a group of Conservative voters who voted the Prime Minister into power found that many expressed annoyance over Johnson’s “rule breaking behaviour”.

The report also suggested that the reason why many MPs unhappy with Johnson have not submitted a no confidence motion against him is due to a perceived lack of a successor.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

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