An Unknown Civil Servant May Determine Boris Johnson’s Fate

An Unknown Civil Servant May Determine Boris Johnson’s Fate

LONDON — With years of experience in the higher reaches of Britain’s civil service, including overseeing government ethics investigations, Sue Gray has been called the most powerful person Britons had never heard of.

No one is saying that anymore.

Ms. Gray will be the center of attention in British politics as she prepares to deliver a report into parties held in Downing Street that violated the nation’s lockdown policies. It’s a crisis that could topple Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is accused of attending at least one gathering, tolerating others and misleading Parliament about them.

Facing a mutiny in his own Conservative Party, Mr. Johnson has appealed to the lawmakers threatening to remove him to wait for Ms. Gray’s report to establish the facts, giving her significant influence over his political fate. A damning report may result in a no-confidence vote, one the prime minister could lose.

“She is having to tread a tightrope between being the unelected official who finished off the prime minister or being the civil servant who gave the prime minister a whitewash,” said Hannah White, deputy director of the Institute for Government, a research institute, who once ran an official committee on standards.

Credit…Gov.uk, via Associated Press

Mr. Johnson recently admitted to attending a gathering in his garden at Downing Street in May 2020 with several dozen staffers who were eating and drinking; he apologized for the outing but said he thought this was a work event.

According to Jill Rutter, a senior research fellow at U.K. in a Changing Europe, a research institute, Ms. Gray is in an unenviable position for a member of a division that prides itself on its political neutrality.

On the one hand, Ms. Rutter said, she knows her report must be thorough to be credible. On the other, she will be acutely aware that her findings could determine whether enough Conservative lawmakers write formal letters of protest to trigger a no-confidence vote in Mr. Johnson.

“She won’t want to open the civil service to the charge that they put a bullet through the prime minister’s forehead, because that would be very bad for our system of government,” said Ms. Rutter, who is a former civil servant.

Ms. Gray is experienced in solving thorny problems and has a reputation as a steely and skillful fixer. She has spent most of her career in government service although at one point she took a break to run a pub in Northern Ireland with her husband, Bill Conlon, a country singer.

Later Ms. Gray worked closely with Gus O’Donnell, a former head of the civil service. Because of the power of his position, as well as his initials, he was nicknamed “God” and, perhaps inevitably, Ms. Gray was known as “baby God.”

One former minister, David Laws, recalled in his memoirs being told by Oliver Letwin, a fellow minister, that it had taken him two years to realize who really ran Britain. According to this account, Mr. Letwin concluded that it was “a lady called Sue Gray,” adding that “unless she agrees, things just don’t happen.”

One reason her current inquiry is particularly difficult is that it was inherited from the current head of the civil service, Simon Case. Mr. Johnson asked Mr. Case to lead what was then a much smaller investigation into party allegations late last year. Embarrassingly, Mr. Case had to recuse himself after reports that one took place in his office.

“When the whole inquiry was conceived it was about investigating three parties and it was primarily an inquiry into the behavior of civil servants,” said Ms. White.

“It’s only because over time more parties came out and then there was one involving the prime minister that she’s got into this situation where, as a senior civil servant, she is investigating her boss’s boss.

“Our system isn’t really set up for situations where the prime minister is the person being investigated,” she added.

The future of Mr. Case (who is one of those bosses) is on the line, as is the job of Martin Reynolds, Mr. Johnson’s principal private secretary and closest nonpartisan aide.

It was Mr. Reynolds who sent an email to around 100 people inviting them to the May 2020 gathering in Downing Street, urging them to “bring your own booze.” That gathering was disclosed when the email was leaked, and when the prime minister’s attendance at the party was also revealed earlier this month, it plunged Mr. Johnson’s government into crisis.

Worryingly for Mr. Johnson, the existence of the May 2020 event was first revealed by Dominic Cummings, once Mr. Johnson’s top political aide in Downing Street and now, having been fired by the prime minister, perhaps his most dangerous enemy.

He or other former Downing Street staff members may still have more evidence that they can release after Ms. Gray’s report is published; they might discredit her findings if they are not comprehensive, Ms. Rutter said.

Given her remit and awkward predicament, most analysts expect Ms. Gray to play things very straight and to limit her findings to facts she has established. She is likely to avoid drawing too many conclusions, and to adopt the kind of dry language at which the British civil service excels.

The report’s author will then gladly retreat from the spotlight.

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