Sue Gray has issued a damning verdict on the party culture in Boris Johnson’s Downing Street, in a 37-page report that includes nine photographs and names a string of senior civil servants.
Gray sets out in embarrassing detail how each event unfolded, including a leaving party on 18 June 2020 at which “one individual was sick” and “there was a minor altercation between two other individuals”.
“Whatever the initial intent, what took place at many of these gatherings and the way in which they developed was not in line with Covid guidance at the time,” the report says.
“Even allowing for the extraordinary pressures officials and advisers were under, the factual findings of this report illustrate some attitudes and behaviours inconsistent with that guidance.”
In his first public reaction to Gray’s report, Johnson issued a qualified apology for the boozy culture that developed in Downing Street during the pandemic, saying he took “full responsibility”.
Speaking to MPs, the prime minister said he was “renewing my apology to the house, to the whole country”, for the birthday gathering in June 2020 for which he was fined, and took “full responsibility for everything that took place on my watch”.
However, he insisted he regarded it as “one of the essential duties of leadership” to “briefly” attend leaving events and thank departing staff, because “it was appropriate to recognise and to thank them for the work that they had done”.
He claimed he had been “appalled” on learning how some of these events had subsequently developed. At one point, Johnson said: “We are humbled,” but after being jeered by MPs, corrected himself to say: “I am humbled.”
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, responding to Johnson, dismissed his partial apology, saying: “When the dust settles and the anger subsides, this report will stand as a monument to the hubris and arrogance of a government that believed it was one rule for them, and another rule for everyone else.”
In what appears to be an indictment of the prime minister, as well as senior civil servants, Gray says: “The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture.”
Details of the gatherings include security logs revealing some staff carried on partying until 4am after the leaving do for the director of communications, James Slack, cleaners giving evidence of spilled wine over the walls, and messages warning drunken staff to leave via the back entrance.
She also highlights a number of occasions on which members of No 10 staff raised questions about whether events should go ahead, or about drunkenness in Downing Street, and had their concerns dismissed.
The nine photographs relate to two gatherings – the June 2020 birthday party for which Johnson, Rishi Sunak and the prime minister’s wife, Carrie Johnson, were fined; and a leaving do for director of communications, Lee Cain.
Officials in No 10 were given the opportunity to read printed copies of the report in a locked room before it was published on Wednesday morning.
Gray sets out the context in which the gatherings took place, saying: “No 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office were at the centre of the government’s response to the pandemic. Tight-knit groups of officials and advisers worked long hours under difficult conditions in buildings that could not be easily adapted as Covid-secure workplaces.”
Gray revealed she had not properly investigated the gathering held in Johnson’s flat, where five special advisers attended and alcohol was provided.
She said she had only started gathering evidence about the event on the night two senior aides departed immediately before the Metropolitan police opened its own investigation but stopped when officers launched Operation Hillman to avoid prejudicing their inquiries. When Scotland Yard’s inquiry ended, Gray said she considered continuing to look into the event “but concluded it was not appropriate or proportionate to do so”.
Gray also said she was told about “multiple examples of a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff”, which she described as “unacceptable”.
The report includes details of a drinks event in the No 10 garden on 20 May 2020, organised by Johnson’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, who urged anyone working in Downing Street that day to “bring your own booze!”
An unnamed special adviser sent Reynolds a WhatsApp message praising his “lovely idea” but pointing out a Covid press conference would just be finishing, so those attending should avoid “walking around waving bottles of wine”.
After the party, Reynolds messaged one adviser saying: “Best of luck – a complete non-story but better than them focusing on our drinks (which we seem to have got away with).”
The prime minister attended eight of the events described in detail by Gray.
Johnson was expected on Wednesday to meet Conservative backbenchers and give a public press conference.
Many Conservative MPs had said they were waiting for Gray’s full report to be published before deciding whether the prime minister should face a vote of no confidence in his leadership. A handful of backbenchers have already said publicly that Johnson should step down.
The senior civil servant’s first report was heavily curtailed because of the Met police’s investigation, which concluded last week, with a total of 126 fines issued to officials.
Even so, Gray highlighted failures of leadership in Downing Street. Johnson responded earlier this year by shaking up his senior team in No 10.
The Met’s decision to issue Johnson with only one fine – for a birthday party held in June 2020 – came under scrutiny this week when a photograph was leaked to ITV News that showed him raising a glass at Cain’s leaving do.
At least one other person at that party was fined for attending it.