Police Investigation Could Give Boris Johnson a Lifeline in Party Scandal

LONDON — Just a week ago, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s political survival looked very uncertain, his party in revolt and the public angry at revelations about parties in Downing Street that breached lockdown rules.

Now Mr Johnson appears to have been granted a reprieve – helped, ironically, by British police who have opened an investigation into the allegations. The police involvement has derailed the release of a full report on the parties, which many lawmakers believe could spark a groundswell to oust Mr Johnson.

On Friday, police confirmed they had asked for critical details not to be included in the highly anticipated report, which was compiled by senior official Sue Gray. By weeding out the most incriminating material, the report could give Mr Johnson a chance to regroup rather than face a crippling no-confidence vote.

His stronger stance, at the end of a troubled and feverish week in British politics, has outraged opposition leaders and other critics. Some have accused the police of an untimely intervention that allowed Mr Johnson to escape judgment for flouting the rules he imposed on others, as well as for subsequently covering up.

“Britain faces huge challenges as we emerge from the pandemic and it is offensive that the government is solely focused on cleaning up after itself,” said Labor Party leader Keir Starmer. “The Gray report must be released in full as soon as possible and the police must continue their investigation.”

Yet Mr Johnson faces a political landscape littered with landmines. The Gray report, which is now due early next week, could still be damaging, even in redacted form. And police could fine several people for breaking lockdown restrictions, including the prime minister himself.

Even a prolonged investigation would prevent Mr Johnson from putting the scandal behind him. His party’s polls faded, while his own ratings plummeted. If Tory lawmakers don’t hit the 54 dissenters needed to call a no-confidence vote this time, they could do so again in May, after local elections, which will be a test of the damage Tories have suffered.

“It may have bought him some time, but I think the vote of confidence is coming,” said Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “We know voters are unstable and can change their minds, but it would be unprecedented for someone to come back from such low ratings and then succeed electorally.”

In the short term, the biggest casualty of these dark maneuvers is Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick. After weeks of refusing to investigate the parties’ reports, her force abruptly announced on Tuesday that it had decided to open an investigation, just as Ms Gray’s report was coming to an end and after her findings were shared with him.

It sparked days of confusion over the timing and content of the report, which Mr Johnson had previously promised to publish in full shortly after it was submitted.

On Tuesday, Downing Street said parts of the report that entered areas under police investigation would be removed, potentially delaying publication. But British media later reported that police did not believe the document would harm their work, sparking speculation it would still be released this week.

If that were true, Scotland Yard seemed to change its mind. On Thursday, Downing Street said negotiations were underway between Ms Gray’s team and police over what could be included in the document without hampering police investigations, as the wait for publication continued.

Newspapers reported that a series of parties took place in Downing Street during the lockdowns, some featuring music and late-night revelry. In one case, a junior employee was reportedly sent to a store with a suitcase to be filled with bottles of wine. In another, staff broke a swing Mr Johnson had set up for his toddler, Wilfred.

In England and Wales, police have issued more than 118,000 fixed penalty notices, which carry fines, for breaking coronavirus rules. Yet Downing Street, the epicenter of the party scandal, is one of the most heavily guarded buildings in the country, with dozens of police officers monitoring security.

“It’s safe to say that all of this would have been avoided if the police had done what made sense and started investigating in December,” Adam Wagner, a lawyer and coronavirus rules expert, wrote on Twitter. “Now we’re in public accountability limbo and there’s a messy dynamic between the internal Gray report and the police investigation.”

Although critics were quick to express suspicions of collusion between the police and Downing Street, a more likely explanation is that the police were reluctant to get involved at an earlier stage due to the forces’ troubled history of investigations. order over politicians.

In 2006, police launched an investigation into whether then Prime Minister Tony Blair had traded honors for political donations. This investigation ended in 2007 without any prosecution.

The following year, police raided the parliamentary office of Damian Green, a Tory MP, as part of an investigation into leaked official documents. Ms Dick was involved in the investigation herself, which has drawn criticism for its heavy-handed tactics.

In their statement on Friday, the police said: ‘For the events which the Met are investigating, we have requested that a minimum reference be made in the Cabinet Office report. They said they did not ask that the release of the report be delayed or that it be expunged of details that were not the subject of a police investigation.

But in practice, the request means the report will almost certainly not include information on the most serious charges relating to social gatherings breaching lockdown restrictions. Opposition leaders jumped at the prospect of a delayed or heavily redacted report, arguing it would amount to a whitewash.

“A seam between Met leadership and Number 10 will hurt our politics for generations and it looks like it’s happening right before our eyes,” Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey wrote on Twitter.

That perception could still backfire on Mr. Johnson, analysts said, even given his electoral record and his ability to bounce back from scandals and setbacks that would capsize an ordinary politician.

“He was once said to be the premier Teflon that nothing stuck to, but you can’t ignore the rules of political gravity indefinitely,” Professor Cowley said. “Eventually, they’re going to get you.”