This morning Simon Clarke, the chief secretary to the Treasury who was doing the morning interview round on behalf of the government, said he thought Sue Gray had instigated the meeting with Boris Johnson a few weeks ago at which the Partygate report was discussed. (See 9.22am.)
But at the lobby briefing today the PM’s spokesperson admitted that Downing Street had instigated the meeting. He said earlier this month there had been contact, at official level, between No 10 and Gray’s team to discuss a meeting. Asked who suggested the meeting, he replied: “No 10 officials.”
But, following that discussion, Gray’s office “sent through a technical request for a meeting”, the spokesperson said.
He stressed that the meeting was not requested by the PM.
Asked why Clarke had said the meeting was instigated by Gray, the spokesperson said a minister doing interviews would not necessarily know the “granular level detail” of this.
I will post more from the briefing soon.
The Downing Street lobby briefing has just finished, and the PM’s spokesperson told journalists that Boris Johnson has still not received the Sue Gray report into Partygate. The spokesperson did not say when it would be arriving, but it is not expected to be published today.
Boris Johnson has recorded a clip for broadcasters during a visit to a school in south-east London. PA Media has written up the key lines.
- Johnson said that he was not “intrinsically” in favour of new taxes, but that a windfall tax was not off the table. Asked about the increasing clamour (particularly within his own party) for a windfall tax, he replied:
I’m not attracted, intrinsically, to new taxes. But as I have said throughout, we have got to do what we can – and we will – to look after people through the aftershocks of Covid, through the current pressures on energy prices that we are seeing post-Covid and with what’s going on in Russia and we are going to put our arms round people, just as we did during the pandemic.
This is broadly the line that Johnson was using at PMQs this week. At the top of government there is still no decision about the windfall tax. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is said to be increasingly in favour, but Johnson is reportedly being urged not to allow a windfall tax by advisers like David Canzini, the deputy chief of staff, and Andrew Griffith, the head of policy, who think it would be “unconservative”.
- Johnson said that the government would be doing more to help people with the cost of living, but that “you’ll just have to wait a little bit longer” for an announcement.
- He insisted that the Sue Gray report into Partygate was independent. But he would not comment on what happened when he met Gray a few weeks ago to discuss the report. Asked if the report was still independent, he replied:
Of course, but on the process you are just going to have to hold your horses a little bit longer. I don’t believe it will be too much longer and then I will be able to say a bit more.
- He said the government was monitoring the monkeypox outbreak – but claimed that at this stage it did not seem very serious. Asked about it, he said:
It’s basically very rare disease, and so far the consequences don’t seem to be very serious but it’s important that we keep an eye on it and that’s exactly what the the new UK Health Security Agency is doing.
Asked whether there should be quarantine for visitors or the use of the smallpox vaccine, he replied:
As things stand the judgment is that it’s rare. I think we’re looking very carefully at the circumstances of transmission.
It hasn’t yet proved, fatal in any case that we know of, certainly not in this country.
Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser who is now determined to be his nemesis, has posted about Partygate on his subscription-only Substack account this morning. Here are the key points.
- Cummings claims that photographs of Boris Johnson at No 10 parties are set to emerge that will show he lied to MPs when he said he was not aware of parties taking place at Downing Street. Cummings says (bold from the original):
I expect photos of the PM will emerge very quickly, within the next 24-48 hours. Any reasonable person looking at some of these photos will only be able to conclude that the PM obviously lied to the Commons, and possibly to the cops, and there is no reasonable story for how others were fined for event X but not him.
- Cummings claims Johnson was not fined by the police for attending certain events because the police did not investigate his attendance at those events. He claims that Johnson benefited in a similar way when Lord Geidt, the independent adviser on ministerial standards, investigated the funding of the Downing Street flat refurbishment because certain lines of inquiry were not pursued. (When the final Geidt report into this was published, it was clear that some avenues for investigation had been left unexplored.)
- He claims that Johnson attended a second birthday party in 2020, as well as the one for which he was fined, that has not been reported. He says:
Some people told the police (but not Sue Gray, because they did not want the PM to read their evidence) that they had evidence regarding the organisation of illegal events from the flat. E.g apart from the ‘cake ambush’ there was a separate birthday party, uncovered by the media so far I think, that evening (which almost nobody knew about at the time, including me). There is a paper trail including WhatsApps from the flat. Sounds very bad for Boris/Carrie right? Surely that must be investigated? No! The police simply ignored it. Simple! PM cleared!
- Cummings says some junior staff at No 10 were told to attend events for which they have now been fined. Those staff relied on assurances that the gatherings were within the rules, he says.
This process for checking lawfulness was particularly crucial in No10 because No10 itself was exempted from some regulations (e.g so it could be part of the mass testing pilot) so staff did not know exactly what rules applied internally from day to day. They weren’t told ‘it’s your job to keep tabs on all the rule changes’, they were told ‘the PPS has a process to ensure everything is lawful’. Obviously you knew *an actual party* (such as clearly happened in 2021) would be against the rules but many of the fines were for events that junior staff thought were a normal part of work and had been approved as lawful. Such officials’ view, reasonably, is: we were told X is lawful but now it turns out Martin [Reynolds, the PM’s principal private secretary] didn’t do his job and it wasn’t and we’re being fined, but if we’re being fined, how come the PM who was there and appointed Martin, and unlike us was told BYOB was NOT within the rules, isn’t fined?!’
Cummings was effectively sacked by Johnson and he has made no secret of his desire to bring him down. His critics would question whether he is a reliable witness. But his revelation in January that No 10 staff were invited to a BYOB party in the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020 was subsequently confirmed by multiple sources and did as much as almost any other single story to escalate the Partygate scandal and trigger the Met police investigation.
This is from the author Michael Rosen, who spent 48 days in intensive care with Covid, on Simon Clarke’s remarks this morning about Downing Street staff being under intense pressure during the pandemic. (See 9.24am.)
Boris Johnson has spoken to the new Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, to congratulate him on his election victory, No 10 says. Here is an extract from the readout of the call.
The prime minister told the new Australian leader that he wanted to congratulate him fulsomely on the big moment and said he looked forward to strengthening the UK – Australia relationship even further.
Prime Minister Albanese thanked the prime minister and noted that the UK and Australia had a strong and historic friendship, stemming from their close Commonwealth ties. The pair agreed that there was more that could be done together.
Both leaders agreed that there was strong alignment between their governments’ joint agendas, spanning across global security, climate change and trade.
As all newspaper subeditors know, and Adam Bienkov from Byline Times has reminded Twitter, although “fulsomely” is routinely used to mean lavishly, technically it means excessively complimentarily (implying insincerity).
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has a bad dose of Covid, she says. She revealed on Friday that she had tested positive. This morning she posted these on Twitter.
And here is a full summary of the lines from Simon Clarke’s morning interviews.
- Clarke, the chief secretary to the Treasury, said publication of the Sue Gray report was being held up by a debate about who to name, and whether photographs would be included. He told Times Radio:
It’s obviously a very complicated one in terms of what can or cannot be said about, for example, naming junior civil servants, inclusion of questions, like photos. These are things which need to be bottomed out as a technical issue before publication, and rightly so because there are very considerable legal and personal sensitivities to that information potentially being disclosed. And it’s that which, as I understand, it lies at the heart of the remaining discussions before publication.
- He said the “extraordinary pressure” that No 10 staff were under during the pandemic helped to explain why the Partygate lockdown breaches happened. (See 9.24am.)
- He said his understanding was that it was Sue Gray who instigated the meeting at which she met Boris Johnson. There was nothing wrong with this happening, he said:
I don’t think it would have been in any way improper – indeed, it would have been somewhat churlish [for Johnson] to have declined to have met.
- He hinted that the universal credit taper rate could be cut – but ruled out restoring the £20 per week uplift introduced during the pandemic. (See 10.06am.)
- He confirmed the government had not ruled out imposing a windfall tax on energy companies. (See 9.52am.)
- He said the government trusted the Bank of England to tackle inflation. Some Tories have been critical of the Bank in private, claiming it has let inflation get out of control. Asked about this, Clarke said:
We absolutely have confidence in the independent Bank of England to get this right and it’s vitally important that we don’t compromise that their independence. They have a mandate, which is very clear, to deliver 2% inflation. We are going to deliver that by the end of next year on the central forecast.
I don’t think that any politician should be defined by their personal circumstances, they should be defined by their performance in their job. And I know that’s the spirit in which Rishi approaches this.
Ultimately, I don’t think we would disqualify anyone on the basis that they had too little money in the bank. And I don’t think we should disqualify Rishi on the basis that he’s obviously very fortunate.
He brings a real sense of public service to this role. Ultimately, he could be doing almost anything with his life and he chooses to serve this country and he works ferociously hard and I think he does a brilliant job.
When Simon Clarke, the chief secretary to the Treasury, said this morning that all options were on the table as the government considered its response to the cost of living crisis (see 9.52am), he did not mean that literally. As he made clear in a subsequent interview, on the Today programme, one option has been swept off the table; the government will not be restoring the £20 a week universal credit uplift paid during the pandemic. He said:
On that question [restoring the uplift], we were always explicitly clear that was a temporary response to the pandemic. That is not going to return. The question is how we best now look at the next range of solutions to deal with the challenges we’re facing.
But Clarke did suggested that a further cut to the universal credit taper rate was being considered. He said:
We took decisive action back in December with the change to the taper rate, that is to say the rate at which benefits are withdrawn as people’s earnings rise, and we cut that from 63p in the pound to 55p in the pound. That’s a tax cut worth an average of £1,000 to two million of the lowest earners in society.
I know that was something Iain [Duncan Smith, the Tory former work and pensions secretary] warmly welcomed at the time and which is precisely the kind of authentic Conservative solution to this question that we want to see.
Over the last few weeks we have been able to witness the debate in the Conservative party on the merits of a windfall tax on energy companies evolve to a remarkable extent in public. At one point most Tory MPs were happy to stick to what was then the Treasury line – that it was a bad idea that would discourage investment. But now more and more senior party figures are coming out to say they are in favour. Last night George Osborne, the former chancellor, told Channel 4’s Andrew Neil Show he was “sure” there would be a windfall tax (although he also said he did not think it would “massively help”). And Jesse Norman, the Conservative MP and former Treasury minister, has backed the idea. He told the Today programme:
We have a situation in which millions of people, because of the massive increase in global oil and gas prices, are facing fuel poverty and a serious cost-of-living crisis in the next few months.
And so the question is, how should government respond to that? And, of course, one thing to note is that those oil and gas prices have also resulted in a massive spike in the profits of the oil majors.
Now that is a spike in profits that no one expected even three or four months ago.
They’re not factored into any investment plans and the reaction of the sector, by and large, has been to acknowledge that, and to do what many large companies do which is to engage in share buy-backs and other forms of dividending back money to shareholders.
And all a windfall tax says is ‘look this is actually inequitable because these people were not expecting that money and these are extraordinary times and we should be thinking about the wider public interest’.
Norman has set out his argument in more detail in a Twitter thread starting here.
In his interviews this morning, Simon Clarke, the chief secretary to the Treasury, stuck to what is (for now) the government’s line – that while in general it does not like windfall taxes, it is not ruling one out. He told LBC:
The [oil and gas] sector is realising enormous profits at the moment.
If those profits are not directed in a way in which is productive for the real economy, then clearly all options are on the table.
And that’s what we are communicating to the sector, that we obviously want to see this investment, we need to see this investment.
If it doesn’t happen, then we can’t rule out a windfall tax.
Good morning. Westminster is – yet again – waiting for the Sue Gray report. The first wait was terminated by the announcement of the Metropolitan police investigation, and the Met’s ruling that publication of the Gray findings in full would compromise the inquiry. There was then a wait for Gray’s interim report – or “update”, as she called it, because the police veto made it so thin it could not be called a proper report. But this week we are finally expecting the whole thing. Very few people think it will be damning enough to trigger a Tory leadership contest, but it should provide the public with by far the best account of exactly who extensive lockdown rule-breaking was in Downing Street. Until now all we’ve had are news reports, based on evidence from unidentified whistleblowers, and limited information from the Met about the fines issued – which is many respects has begged more questions than it has answered.
Gray is a long-serving and very senior civil servant and she will have noticed that, when an independent-minded figure is about to deliver a verdict hostile to No 10, it is not unusual for Downing Street’s allies in the media to launch a hit job in advance. Right on cue, today’s Daily Mail carries a report accusing her of playing politics and grandstanding. It says:
“Sue Gray is supposed to be neutral but she’s been busy playing politics and enjoying the limelight a little too much,” said one insider.
The Mail claims Gray’s team incorrectly said Downing Street was responsible for scheduling a meeting some weeks ago between Gray and Boris Johnson – which prompted claims Johnson was trying to pressurise her when it was reported on Friday night. The Mail says:
Downing Street insiders are furious at the refusal of Miss Gray’s team to set the record straight. A source said: “It is infuriating. They have let this impression run that the PM has somehow tried to nobble the report when nothing could be further from the truth.
“He wants it all out there, however uncomfortable so we can all move on. He even wants the photos published.”
Allies of the PM have been shocked by media briefings from Miss Gray’s team.
Simon Clarke, the chief secretary to the Treasury, had to respond on the morning interview round this morning on behalf of the government. He made three main points on Partygate.
I would [condemn it]. I think the one thing I would say about Sue Gray, and I have never met her but I have heard a great deal about her, is that by repute she is one of the most fiercely independent and professional civil servants in the whole of government and brings a vast range of experience to bear, so I don’t think there is any politics.
In no way do I think there is anything other than a practical dimension to the question of when it comes out, now that the police have concluded their investigation.
- He said his understanding was that it was Gray who instigated the meeting at which she met Johnson.
- He said said the “extraordinary pressure” that No 10 staff were under during the pandemic helped to explain why the Partygate lockdown breaches happened. He said:
I think we also need to remember, without excusing what happened, but by way of context, the extraordinary pressure that group of people were under during the course of the pandemic.
They were working the longest imaginable hours under the most enormous amount of pressure. That in no way diminishes the seriousness of what happened, but it does provide some context.
As my colleague Peter Walker argues, this sounds like a preview of the case for the defence we will hear from No 10 when the full report comes out.
Here is the agenda for the day.
9.30am: The ONS publishes a report on hybrid working.
Morning: Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer are doing separate visits in or near London. They are both due to record clips for broadcasters.
11.30am: Downing Street holds a lobby briefing.
1pm: Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, gives evidence to the Lords science and technology committee on the UK science strategy.
2.30pm: Tim Davie, the BBC director general, gives evidence to the Lords communications and digital committee on the future of the BBC licence fee.
After 3.30pm: MPs begin the second reading debate on the public order bill.
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