A CRUCIAL report into gatherings and parties across Whitehall during lockdown may be published as soon as this week, despite fears it would be delayed.
Metropolitan Police chief Cressida Dick announced yesterday that her force would now examine possible offences in Downing Street and other government departments.
The force has come under pressure over the past several months after refusing to look into the claims of rule-breaking, most notably in Downing Street during the pandemic.
However, Ms Dick announced a change in stance yesterday morning, confirming there would be an investigation into a “number of events that took place at Downing Street and Whitehall in the last two years in relation to potential breaches of Covid-19 regulations”.
She said: “My officers have assessed several other events that appear to have taken place “at Downing Street and Whitehall. On the available information, these other events are assessed as not reaching the threshold for criminal investigation.”
Ms Dick also stressed that the force’s general rule was not to investigate possible lockdown breaches “long” after they had taken place, but information passed to her had met the threshold for an inquiry.
She added: “The fact that we are now investigating does not, of course, mean that fixed penalty notices will necessarily be issued in every instance and to every person involved.”
The Commissioner said the force would “not be giving a running commentary” on the probe, but said: “I can assure you that we will give updates at significant points as we would normally do.”
The latest development has prompted concerns from opposition politicians that the report by civil servant Sue Gray into the gatherings would be delayed.
According to the investigation’s terms of reference, any police inquiry could see the Sue Gray probe “paused”.
However, the team working on the Gray inquiry said that work was still ongoing, while Downing Street confirmed it had not been put on hold.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Boris Johnson welcomed the police probe, but added that he did not believe he had broken the law.
He later said that there was no objection to Ms Gray’s report being published, adding: “The advice that I have had is that there are still ongoing discussions, there are still details that need to be worked through between both the police and the investigations team.”
The spokesman said decisions on publication were a matter for the Cabinet Office and police and “we are not, as in Number 10, seeking to block that in any way”.
He added it “certainly remains the case that we would want it to be published as soon as possible” although “I would not want to be perceived as putting undue pressure on either the investigations team or the police”.
Yesterday, Labour secured an urgent question on the issue in the Commons, with Paymaster General Michael Ellis being sent to answer for the Government.
Labour deputy Angela Rayner sought asked for clarity on the timing of the Gray report, asking him to for reassurances that it would be “published in full” with “accompanying evidence”.
She added: “Given this Government’s record of lost phones, missing messages and minutes, can he assure the House that all evidence from the Gray inquiry will be properly held by the Cabinet Office?”
Mr Ellis replied: “The Prime Minister right now is working on cost of living; he’s working on Russia; Ukraine. He is doing those jobs – the Prime Minister is focused on those areas.”
“I think she also, in her second point, forgets that the word ‘potentially’ was used. The reality of the matter is that the fact that the police are investigating the matter does not draw any conclusions.”
SNP MP Pete Wishart suggested that the Met should Met set up a special unit in Downing Street to investigate “general Tory badness”, saying that once they had finished probing the parties they could “perhaps look at cash for honours, cash for access, PPE for pals, paid advocacy and breaking the ministerial code – and just all the other general Tory badness”.
However, the Cabinet Office minister responded that a “quick Google analysis of the SNP would not be particularly edifying” and said the Prime Minister was concentrating on delivering for the country”.
Tory MP Richard Bacon then suggested that Boris Johnson’s birthday party in 2020 was not as bad as apparent misdeeds by other political parties.
He said: “Compared with being interviewed under caution for flogging peerages as Tony Blair was, compared with trying to prosecute a former first minister of Scotland when they [the SNP] were told there was no evidence to do so, and compared to taking money from Chinese spies, eating a piece of birthday cake is a relatively minor offence.”
Kirsten Oswald, the SNP ’s deputy Westminster leader, said: “There is nothing stopping Ms Gray’s report from being published as planned, given that the Metropolitan Police has not raised any objections.
“Any attempts to block or delay publication of the report is just another pitiful attempt from a Prime Minister who knows his days in office are numbered.”