Sun, May 22, 2022 11:40 AM
By SYLVIA HUI, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — A highly-anticipated report into the British government's “partygate” coronavirus lockdown scandal that could determine Prime Minister Boris Johnson's political fortunes is set to be published this week, after months of delay.
Senior civil servant Sue Gray, who has been tasked with investigating multiple lockdown-flouting gatherings at Johnson's official residence and other government sites, is widely expected to release her findings within days.
Claims that Johnson and his staff enjoyed illegal office parties while millions in the country stuck to strict COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 and 2021 have dogged Johnson's Conservative government since they first surfaced late last year. Critics, including some within Johnson's own ranks, have called for him to resign.
But while “partygate” threatened to topple Johnson's leadership earlier this year, he has clung on to power partly because Russia's invasion of Ukraine diverted public and political attention.
Gray’s full report could renew pressure on Johnson if it heavily criticizes him and senior officials.
Johnson has apologized after admitting he was fined 50 pounds ($66) for attending a surprise birthday party thrown for him in 10 Downing St. in June 2020. That made him the first British prime minister ever found to have broken the law while in office.
However, Johnson insisted that he did not knowingly break the rules, saying “it did not occur to me" that the brief gathering was a party — a claim that drew derision from many.
A investigation by London's Metropolitan Police that concluded last week said in total, the force issued 126 fixed-penalty fines to 83 people for eight gatherings at Downing Street and nearby government buildings. About two dozen of those people received more than one fine.
Police did not identify those who were fined, but Treasury chief Rishi Sunak, as well as Johnson’s wife, Carrie, have said they also paid fines for attending Johnson's birthday party.
Government officials have said the Gray report will be fully published issued as soon as possible once the police probe is complete.
A partial version of the Gray report was published in January after police requested her to leave out details to avoid prejudicing police inquiries. The partial report did not name individuals, but it did criticize “failures of leadership and judgment” that allowed the parties to take place.
About 30 people, including Johnson, have been contacted by the Cabinet Office over the past few days to warn them of the contents of the report ahead of its publication.
While the Gray report is closely watched, the civil servant's scope for censuring Johnson is limited — and it's unclear the extent to which its publication will help restore public trust in the Conservative government.
On Friday, fresh questions were raised after British media reported that Johnson and Gray had met several weeks ago — though what exactly the two discussed is unclear.
Defending Johnson on Sunday, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said Gray is conducting an “independent" investigation.
“The prime minister has made it very clear that he has never intervened or will seek to intervene or interfere with the investigation," Zahawi told the BBC.
Opposition parties urged Johnson to explain why he held a “secret meeting” with Gray.
“Public confidence in the process is already depleted, and people deserve to know the truth," said Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party.
Johnson also faces a separate inquiry about whether he knowingly lied to Parliament when he told lawmakers earlier that no laws had been broken at Downing Street. Ministers found to have done so are generally expected to resign.