U.K. Police Ask for Report on Boris Johnson to Withhold Details
LONDON — The British police confirmed on Friday that they have asked for critical details to be withheld from an eagerly awaited government investigation of parties at 10 Downing Street during coronavirus lockdowns, giving Prime Minister Boris Johnson some political breathing space but provoking an outcry from critics.
“For the events the Met is investigating, we asked for minimal reference to be made in the Cabinet Office report,” London’s Metropolitan Police said in a statement. It added that the police had not asked for the publication of the report to be delayed or for it to be scrubbed of details that were not under police investigation.
But as a practical matter, the request means the report will almost certainly not contain information about the most serious accusations about social gatherings violating lockdown restrictions. The stream of reports about illicit gatherings, and Mr. Johnson’s dissembling response to them, has mushroomed into a major scandal, threatening his hold on power.
Many lawmakers in Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party have said they would wait for the internal report — by a senior civil servant, Sue Gray — before deciding whether to submit letters calling for a no-confidence vote in Mr. Johnson. If the most incriminating details are withheld, it could slow the momentum against him.
Opposition leaders pounced on the prospect of a heavily redacted report, arguing that it would amount to a whitewash.
“The Sue Gray report must be published in full, including all photos, text messages and other evidence,” Alistair Carmichael, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on home affairs, said in a statement. “Any appearance of an establishment stitch-up between the Met commissioner and the government is profoundly damaging.”
The leader of the Scottish National Party in the British Parliament, Ian Blackford, wrote on Twitter that “people are understandably concerned that this increasingly looks like a cover-up.” He also called for the full report to be published.
The latest announcement put a harsh spotlight on the role of the police. After declining for weeks to investigate the reports of parties, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, Cressida Dick, abruptly announced on Tuesday that the force had decided to open an investigation, just as Ms. Gray’s report was nearing completion.
That set off days of confusion about the timing and contents of the report, which Mr. Johnson had earlier promised to publish in full, soon after it was submitted.
Understand Boris Johnson’s Recent Troubles
Turmoil at Downing Street. A steady drip of disclosures about parties that violated lockdown rules has ensnared Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain in a scandal that could threaten his hold on power. Here is what to know:
Contentious gatherings. The British news media reported that staff members were invited to a party in the backyard of Mr. Johnson’s residence in May 2020, when officials were instructing people not to socialize to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Subsequently, details about other gatherings involving government officials that violated Covid rules have emerged.
Investigations. A senior civil servant is investigating the matter internally. Mr. Johnson faces questions about whether he broke lockdown rules and misled Parliament about his knowledge of parties at Downing Street that breached Covid rules. The British police are also conducting an investigation into parties held at government offices.
Mr. Johnson’s response. After public backlash, Mr. Johnson issued a contrite apology for attending the party in his backyard, while claiming that he had viewed the gathering as a work event that did not breach the rules. He also apologized for parties held at Downing Street as the queen prepared to bury her husband.
What’s at stake. The crisis has stoked speculations that the political future of Mr. Johnson might be at risk. Though few Conservatives in Parliament have publicly called on him to quit, if the investigation determines that he misled Parliament, it could cost him his job.
On Tuesday, Downing Street said that parts of the report that treaded into areas under police investigation would be removed, potentially delaying its publication. But the British media then reported that the police did not think the document would prejudice their work, stirring speculation that it would still be published this week.
If that was true, Scotland Yard appeared to change its mind. On Thursday, Downing Street said that negotiations were underway between Ms. Gray’s team and the police over what could be included in the document without hampering police inquiries, as the wait for publication continued.
Critics faulted the police for dragging their feet on an investigation. Newspapers have reported a string of parties at Downing Street, some featuring music and late-night revelry. In one case, a junior staffer was reportedly dispatched to a store with a suitcase to fill with wine bottles. Police officers guarding the complex are in a particularly good place to monitor the comings and goings of staff members.
“Arguably all of this would have been avoided if police had done the sensible thing and begun investigating in December when the allegations emerged,” wrote Adam Wagner, a lawyer and expert on the coronavirus rules, on Twitter. “Now we are in public accountability limbo and there is a messy dynamic between the internal Gray report and police investigation.”