May 23, 2022

Minister condemns ‘playing politics’ briefing against Sue Gray ahead of partygate report

Downing Street has admitted that it did initiate a meeting between Boris Johnson and Sue Gray – hours after a cabinet minister told Sky News that it was Ms Gray who did so.

Contradictory accounts about the secret meeting have emerged since details of it were first reported by Sky News last Friday.

Meanwhile an anonymous briefing to a newspaper accused Ms Gray of “playing politics” and “enjoying the limelight a little too much” ahead of the publication of her report into Downing Street parties this week.

Politics hub: Boris Johnson’s spokesman confirms meeting was initiated by Number 10

Labour claimed the government was trying to undermine Sue Gray and her report.

Simon Clarke, chief secretary to the Treasury, told Sky News on Monday that he condemned the anonymous briefing against her, describing Ms Gray as “one of the most fiercely independent and professional civil servants in the whole of government”.

He also defended the integrity of the report and said it would be wrong to infer from accounts of the meeting that pressure had been placed on Ms Gray.

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But he said it was Ms Gray who instigated the meeting with the PM, something the senior civil servant had denied – defending his decision to go ahead with the encounter by saying it would have been “churlish” to refuse.

Asked whether Mr Johnson’s position could come under threat as a result of Sue Gray’s findings, he said: “My faith in the prime minister is absolute.”

Hours later in a daily briefing with journalists, the prime minister’s official spokesman confirmed that the meeting between Ms Gray and the PM had been initiated by Downing Street.

The spokesman said following that “official level contact” it had been Sue Gray’s office that submitted a “technical request” for a meeting.

But the spokesman said it had been Number 10 officials who suggested that it “might be useful” to give the prime minister an overview of what her team was planning “with regards to publication and timings.”

Downing Street also said it did not support the claims reported in the Daily Mail about Ms Gray “playing politics”.

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PM ‘never intervened’ with Sue Gray

Mr Johnson refused to comment on the details of the meeting during a visit to a school in south-east London, but said “of course” Ms Gray remained independent.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told reporters: “I always had a concern that as we got to the publication of the Sue Gray report, there will be attempts by the government to undermine her and undermine the report.

“That’s what we’ve seen going on over the weekend in recent days, a new low for the government.”

Liberal Democrat chief whip Wendy Chamberlain said: “The public would be rightly angry if it turns out Boris Johnson put pressure on Sue Gray to water down her report into illegal Downing Street parties.”

The publication of Ms Gray’s findings this week will come after the Metropolitan Police last week concluded its investigation into allegations of lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street and Whitehall in 2020 and 2021.

It said 126 fines were to be issued to 83 people. The prime minister, his wife and the chancellor each received one fixed penalty notice relating to a birthday gathering in June 2020 – and have all apologised.

Reports suggest that Ms Gray’s report will feature photographs of illegal gatherings.

Mr Clarke said: “Do I think in any way that the integrity of this report should be questioned?

“No, because Sue Gray has a reputation which dates back decades in terms of her ability to make judgments without fear or favour and I think she will absolutely deliver it on that basis.”

Mr Clarke said the meeting with the prime minister “will have been, in essence, to receive an update”.

“I think it would be genuinely wrong to impugn that there has been any pressure put on the nature of this report in any way,” he said.

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