How email trail ‘leads to Sue Gray’: Whitehall chief asked for meeting with Boris Johnson to update him on report, sources say
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.
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.
A ‘secret’ meeting between Boris Johnson and Sue Gray (pictured) was requested by her and did not discuss her detailed findings about Partygate, Whitehall sources revealed last night
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. 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.
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…’ (Boris Johnson pictured in January)
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.
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.