Sue Gray is ‘playing politics’ over Partygate, Boris Johnson’s allies claimed last night.
They reacted with fury to allegations that the PM had tried to ‘nobble’ her official inquiry.
A senior Whitehall source said it was ‘not true’ that Mr Johnson had sought a secret meeting with Miss Gray to discuss her report into lockdown-busting events in No 10.
The Daily Mail has established that the ‘procedural’ meeting followed an emailed request from the ethics chief herself. The contents of her report were not discussed. Senior Tories were also alarmed by ‘toxic’ media briefings from Miss Gray’s team and the suggestion that she was ‘surprised’ Mr Johnson had received only one fine.
‘Sue Gray is supposed to be neutral but she’s been busy playing politics and enjoying the limelight a little too much,’ said one insider.
In a further twist last night, it emerged that the senior press officer in charge of handling the publication of the report was relieved of his duties yesterday without explanation.
As Miss Gray prepared to finally release the dossier, following the completion of a Scotland Yard investigation:
- Government sources confirmed the PM wants Partygate photos to be published to dispel the idea that No 10 was ‘like Ibiza on a Saturday night’ during lockdown;
- The Cabinet Office declined to comment on claims by sources that Miss Gray had overruled government legal advice that warned against identifying officials;
- Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said the PM had ‘never intervened’ in the contents of Miss Gray’s report;
- Downing Street denied reports that the PM has lined up Cabinet Secretary Simon Case to be the ‘fall guy’ for Miss Gray’s expected criticism of the culture in No 10.
Sue Gray (pictured) is ‘playing politics’ over Partygate, Boris Johnson’s allies claimed last night. They reacted with fury to allegations that the PM had tried to ‘nobble’ her official inquiry
Prime minister Boris Johnson is seen walking from Downing Street, Central London earlier this week as the Metropolitan Police announce the investigation into party gate will end
The claim that Mr Johnson ordered a ‘secret meeting’ with Miss Gray was seized on by the Opposition at the weekend to suggest he had tried to interfere.
Labour said the claim that the PM had demanded the session with Miss Gray raised questions about the independence of the report. Deputy leader Angela Rayner accused him of ‘undermining’ Miss Gray and ‘interfering’ with her report. She even suggested he may have taken a bottle of Tipp-Ex to the meeting to blank out parts he didn’t like.
The Liberal Democrats accused Downing Street of a ‘stitch-up’.
Major broadcasters, including the BBC and Sky, also featured reports of the meeting in their news bulletins.
Downing Street insisted Mr Johnson had not asked for the meeting. But Miss Gray’s team disputed this version of events, saying the idea for the session had originated in Downing Street.
Mr Johnson was not briefed on her findings, which are finally set to be published this week, barring last-minute legal problems relating to the naming of individuals.
Downing Street insisted Mr Johnson had not asked for the meeting. But Miss Gray’s team disputed this version of events, saying the idea for the session had originated in Downing Street (Sue Gray pictured in Westminster earlier this year)
A Downing Street source claimed the PM ‘wants the photos (of Downing Street parties) published’ to dispel the idea that No 10 was ‘like Ibiza on a Saturday night’ during lockdown
Downing Street insiders are furious at the refusal of Miss Gray’s team to set the record straight. A source said: ‘It is infuriating. They have let this impression run that the PM has somehow tried to nobble the report when nothing could be further from the truth.
‘He wants it all out there, however uncomfortable so we can all move on. He even wants the photos published.’
Allies of the PM have been shocked by media briefings from Miss Gray’s team.
But a source close to Miss Gray denied she was ‘playing politics’ – and said she had not authorised the briefings attributed to her.
An interim report from Miss Gray in January blamed ‘failures of leadership and judgment’ at No 10.
How email trail ‘leads to Sue Gray’: Whitehall chief asked for meeting with Boris Johnson to update him on report, sources say
ByJason Groves Political Editor For The Daily Mail
A ‘secret’ meeting between Boris Johnson and Sue Gray was requested by her and did not discuss her detailed findings about Partygate, Whitehall sources said last night.
A senior official told the Daily Mail that an ’email trail’ would demolish Opposition claims that the Prime Minister had demanded the meeting in order to ‘fix’ Miss Gray’s report before publication.
Riddle of press officer moved after leaks and lurid briefings
A senior Civil Service press officer responsible for handling the publication of Sue Gray’s report was dramatically dropped from the role last night.
The official, who has worked on the inquiry since it was taken over by Miss Gray in December last year, was expected to oversee the media handling of the report’s inquiry in the coming days.
But last night he told reporters he was ‘no longer working on the Sue Gray inquiry’, and that all questions should be referred to the Cabinet Office.
Mystery surrounds the reasons for his removal yesterday. But the move follows the decision by Miss Gray’s team on Saturday to publicly challenge No 10’s insistence that a meeting between her and Boris Johnson this month was held at her request.
It also comes after a number of lurid briefings about her report in the weekend newspapers, including a claim in The Sunday Times that Miss Gray was ‘surprised’ the Prime Minister received only one fine.
One senior Whitehall figure voiced surprise that Miss Gray had had a press officer at all, adding: ‘She’s supposed to be producing a quasi-judicial report – what does she need a spin doctor for?’
The Cabinet Office yesterday declined to comment on the reasons for the removal of the senior press officer on Miss Gray’s team. He is thought to have returned to other duties elsewhere in government.
A source claimed the official had only been ‘helping out’, adding: ‘The Cabinet Office communications team is now dealing with it because we are the responsible department.’
The source said the Whitehall ethics chief had emailed the PM’s private office to arrange the ‘brief’ meeting earlier this month in order to update him on the stage her investigations had reached. She is said to have had a reply starting: ‘Following your request, I’m happy to tell you you can meet the PM…’
Both sides insist that Miss Gray’s findings were not discussed during the short meeting to talk about ‘procedural’ issues.
The meeting is said to have followed a discussion between Miss Gray and No 10’s chief operating officer Samantha Jones about the progress of the report.
The revelation by Sky News on Friday night that Miss Gray and the PM had met triggered a string of claims that Mr Johnson was trying to fix the outcome of her report.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner claimed Mr Johnson was ‘taking people for fools’ by ‘undermining and interfering’ with the investigation.
The party’s Treasury spokesman, Fleur Anderson, claimed it was ‘not appropriate’ for the PM to order Miss Gray to attend a ‘secret meeting’.
‘I absolutely don’t doubt Sue Gray’s integrity,’ she said. ‘However, all of her work is called into question when we hear about secret meetings being held by Boris Johnson.
‘She has got full integrity but she is a Cabinet Office staff member, he’s her boss – she couldn’t say ‘no’.’
Lib Dem MP Christine Jardine said: ‘Any whiff of a stitch-up would make an absolute mockery of the report. This meeting must be explained.’
Downing Street tried to defuse the situation on Friday night by clarifying that Miss Gray had herself requested the meeting.
But, to the fury of the PM’s allies, Miss Gray’s team disputed the claim. A Cabinet Office source yesterday said that ‘neither’ Miss Gray nor the PM had initiated the meeting, which had been arranged by officials.
One insider accused Miss Gray’s team of ‘deliberate mischief-making’, adding: ‘The first the PM knew about it was when it appeared in his diary.’
The uncertainty allowed the issue to continue to dominate the TV news headlines throughout the weekend.
Later, appearing on the BBC’s Sunday Morning he said reporters were ‘throwing mud at something that doesn’t exist’. He also suggested the meeting could have been conducted because of Ms Gray’s other responsibilities for the levelling-up agenda.
Timeline of the toxic briefings
FRIDAY, 8pm: Sky News breaks the story of the meeting between Boris Johnson and Sue Gray. The on-air report says ‘details are very, very sketchy’ but any such a meeting would ‘raise eyebrows’ and there was already a huge effort under way to underplay the significance of the meeting.
9pm: Downing Street denies the Prime Minister asked for the meeting – a source says Miss Gray had requested it instead. A statement adds: ‘The Prime Minister commissioned the investigation led by Sue Gray and has been clear throughout that it should be completely independent. As he reiterated again today, the decision on what and when to publish rests entirely with the investigation team and he will respond in parliament once it concludes.’
10pm: Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner demands the PM explain the ‘secret meeting’. She says: ‘Boris Johnson must urgently explain why he held a secret meeting with Sue Gray to discuss her report despite claiming her investigation was completely independent.’
SATURDAY, 11am: A spokesman for the Gray inquiry denies it was the Whitehall ethics chief who demanded the meeting.
SUNDAY, 7am: The Observer newspaper and others reveal detailed briefings of Miss Gray’s work. One source says: ‘She has been left to do it on her own with very little support. She has been horribly isolated.’
8.30am: Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi is unable to say who instigated the meeting. He tells Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme: ‘All I can say to you is the meeting… took place between Sue Gray and the Prime Minister.’
11am: Press officer working on the report is moved on.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi faced a barrage of questions about the row during appearances on the BBC and Sky News yesterday.
Mr Zahawi disputed the claim that the meeting was ‘secret’, saying: ‘The Prime Minister meets his senior civil servants all the time.
‘I don’t believe that having a meeting with your senior civil servant is material to the outcome. That civil servant is independent in their investigation and has the highest level of professionalism and integrity.
‘The Prime Minister has made it very clear that he has never intervened or will seek to intervene or interfere.’
Mr Zahawi said Mr Johnson had been clear that he wanted Miss Gray’s investigation to ‘basically go wherever the evidence takes her’.
He added: ‘I don’t know the details of all the meetings that happen at No 10 but what I do know is that the Prime Minister has never intervened in the investigation that Sue Gray conducted. Secondly, I’ve worked with Sue Gray, I know Sue Gray, Sue Gray’s integrity is beyond question.’
The PM said on Friday that he would not seek to prevent the mandarin from naming around 30 people, despite a source claiming government lawyers had advised her not to.
A senior Whitehall source said the PM was content for her to publish whatever material she wanted, even if this included photos of events that took place in No 10 during lockdown.
They added: ‘In some people’s imagination it was like Ibiza on a Saturday night in July in No 10. The reality was very different.’
The source added: ‘The PM is taking a maximalist approach to this. However ugly it is he wants it all out of the way so that no one can say he is hiding things and he can move on.
‘That is why it is so annoying to have this idea out there that he has been trying to tone it down.’
The Sunday Times yesterday reported that Miss Gray was ‘surprised’ that the PM had been fined only over a so-called ‘birthday party’ at which he was presented with a cake in a gap between meetings.
A source told the paper: ‘Sue is not a lawyer but in her opinion the birthday party was the least egregious event she has looked in to.’
The Observer reported that Miss Gray had been given very little help by the Civil Service. ‘She has been horribly isolated,’ a source said.
Why was Boris-hating QC kept on as adviser?
By Jim Norton and Alice Wright for The Daily Mail
A left-wing barrister has continued in his role as adviser to the civil service investigation into Partygate despite a slew of anti-Boris Johnson tweets, it is understood.
Daniel Stilitz QC – believed to be a member of the Labour Party – was exposed as having posted online that the Prime Minister should not be trusted and shared comments accusing him of spreading ‘fake news’.
Yet despite his strong views, he was handed a high-profile role advising Sue Gray on her report into alleged lockdown-breaking gatherings at Downing Street.
Concerns were quickly raised over whether the anti-Brexit lawyer should have been part of team, with one Conservative MP branding his involvement ‘totally inappropriate’.
Yet, as the investigation nears its critical denouement this week, it has emerged that Mr Stilitz is continuing in his role as legal adviser to the inquiry.
After questions emerged over his involvement in the Gray inquiry, Mr Stilitz (pictured) deleted his Twitter account and has not responded to repeated requests for comment
In an initial update on her inquiries in January, Miss Gray said Mr Stilitz – alongside the Treasury Solicitor – had ‘provided independent advice as to the process’. Very little further information, however, has been provided on exactly how much or specifically what advice the Oxford-educated lawyer has given.
But in late April, details about the Left-leaning politics of Mr Stilitz, of 11KBW chambers in London, began to emerge.
Among his Twitter posts, he said Labour MPs backing the Brexit deal were ‘mugs’ and retweeted one post describing Mr Johnson as ‘our reckless dangerous PM’.
In 2018 he accused the Government of being in ‘a terminal mess’. In another post, from 2016, he wrote: ‘Why not join Labour? Now seems as good a time as any.’
Commenting on Brexit in 2019, Mr Stilitz said ‘most people don’t want Brexit’, and claimed: ‘The future of the UK is collateral damage in this mad Tory fight to the death.’
After questions emerged over his involvement in the Gray inquiry, Mr Stilitz deleted his Twitter account and has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said Mr Stilitz was in place before Miss Gray was appointed and that he had provided ‘independent advice … on the process of the investigation’.
She added that the judgment in the final report would be Miss Gray’s and ‘hers alone’.
Sue Gray is set to publish her report on lockdown parties at Downing Street this week
She said: ‘Daniel Stilitz has extensive experience of government work, having been instructed by numerous departments across a wide range of significant cases.
‘As with all members of the Bar, his personal views are his own and have no bearing on the professional advice that he provides as an independently regulated barrister.
‘He is bound by the code of conduct which sets out that all barristers maintain their independence and act in the best interests of their client.’
London-born Mr Stilitz, 53, was educated at William Ellis School in Hampstead, north London, and graduated from New College, Oxford, with a degree in politics, philosophy and economics in 1990. He had two sons and a daughter with his first wife, and lived in a £2million townhouse in the same Islington street as Jeremy Corbyn. He remarried in 2019.
Mr Stilitz, who lists his interests in Who’s Who as photography, music and reading, was called to the Bar in 1992 and made a Queen’s Counsel in 2010.
In a wide-ranging career encompassing employment law, public law, commercial and sports law, he has represented government departments, City giants such as Goldman Sachs and sports stars including former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho.