Cressida Dick, Britain’s most senior police officer, has been accused by MPs of presiding over a “stitch-up” and a “farce” after her last-minute intervention in the Downing Street party scandal put on hold questions over Boris Johnson’s future.
Dick’s decision to launch a Metropolitan Police inquiry into allegations of lockdown-breaking parties in Whitehall threw into confusion when — and in what format — a separate “partygate” inquiry by senior civil servant Sue Gray would be published.
The Met insisted that Gray’s report should make only “minimal reference” to the events that are subject to its investigation, creating a legal stand-off and offering Johnson breathing space from his political problems.
On Friday, government insiders said that Gray was still determined to produce a report into the affair in the coming days — rather than delaying it indefinitely — albeit with redactions requested by the police.
Johnson’s supporters believe the political heat of the affair is dissipating; next week the prime minister will try to get back on the front foot with policy announcements on “levelling up” and post-Brexit deregulation.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said: “A stitch-up between the Met leadership and Number 10 will damage our politics for generations and it looks like it is happening right in front of our eyes.”
Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, said: “This does look as if it’s a stitch-up and the only person that benefits from that is Boris Johnson.”
Some Conservative MPs were also furious that Dick’s intervention could mean that the scandal over the parties drags on for weeks, while the police carried out their own investigations.
“I thought that it was this house which held the government to account for its policies, and not the Metropolitan Police,” Sir Christopher Chope, a Tory grandee, told the House of Commons.
Sir Roger Gale, a Tory critic of Johnson, called the affair “a farce”, while a former cabinet minister said: “Some say this takes the pressure off Johnson but actually I think the opposite; it just drags the agony out for longer.”
The Met said it wanted to avoid “any prejudice to our investigation”. A person close to the investigation said the force was still only looking into potential breaches of Covid regulations, not more serious offences.
On Friday evening the force announced it had received “the material it requested from the Cabinet Office to support its investigation” and that it intended to carry out its work “promptly, fairly and proportionately”.
Catherine Roper, head of the Met’s specialist crime command, said: “We have not delayed this report and the timing of its release is a matter for the Cabinet Office inquiry team.”
It said that the offences under investigation, if proven, would normally result in fixed penalty notices; individuals accused of breaches of Covid rules would be invited to explain their actions and whether they felt they had “a reasonable excuse”.
“Should a recipient dispute the fixed penalty notice then the case will be referred back to the Met, where officers will consider whether to pursue the matter in a magistrates’ court.”
Dal Babu, a former Metropolitan Police chief superintendent who once worked on security in Downing Street, said the Met appeared to be taking “an ultra-cautious approach”.
But some lawyers said the publication of the Gray report could impede the police investigation because it could influence the recollections of suspects and witnesses and allow them to tailor their versions of events before being interviewed by the police.
David Corker, a partner at law firm Corker Binning, said: “I think the position of the police is entirely reasonable as publication could affect the police investigation.”
Meanwhile, Theresa May, former prime minister, told her local newspaper, the Maidenhead Advertiser: “Like so many, I was angry to hear stories of those in Number 10, who are responsible for setting the coronavirus rules, not properly following the rules.”
Additional reporting by Jim Pickard