The pressure is mounting on Metropolitan police as they face a formal appeal to justify letting Boris Johnson escape a fine for drinking at a social gathering during lockdown, with some senior officers confused over the force’s handling of the Partygate investigation.
The prime minister will be forced to explain his presence at the event when Sue Grays’ Whitehall inquiry, which has hung over his prime minister for seven months, is finally published.
Tory MPs are expected to use the senior official’s report, which could come on Wednesday, to decide whether to enforce a leadership contest or accept Johnson’s apology once and for all.
The Met ended its investigation into Partygate last week, leaving Johnson with a fine despite allegations that he was an active participant in several rallies that broke his own government’s Covid rules.
On Monday, that decision came under scrutiny and widespread criticism when images surfaced of Johnson with a glass in his hand, surrounded by other people grabbing glasses, and apparently toasting outgoing Downing Street assistant Lee Cain in front of a table full of empty bottles of alcohol.
Even inside the Met, there is disbelief that the picture did not lead to a fine for the Prime Minister, and concern over the decision-making.
A source, a staunch defender of the Met, said: “There are many questions to answer.
“I’m confused … I think it’s dazzlingly obvious evidence of a breach. The least you would do is question the individual. If I had been in charge of the investigation, I should have been convinced why the picture did not showed a fracture. “
Another source, again a loyal defender of the Met and veteran officer, said: “I look at that picture and wonder why it is not an FPN [fixed-penalty notice]? ”
The Met said it would not provide further explanation beyond a statement it issued last week.
The Guardian has heard of a private briefing for officers in which the decision-making process was explained in more detail than it has been in public. The briefing said officers demanded reasonable faith that a person had committed an offense.
The police then considered each element of the offense according to the rules: “Each line of the investigation looked at the date, the circumstances behind each event” and “each person’s actions were compared with the law at the time to determine whether the conduct met … threshold for an FPN. “
The briefing said police looked at how many people were at the gathering, whether the gathering was covered by an exception, and if not, whether the individual had a reasonable excuse to attend that gathering.
It went on to say that the strength of the evidence was a “crucial” fact to ensure that the case could be prosecuted in court if the decision to issue a fixed sentence was challenged.
Another source added that questionnaires sent by the police to younger employees were largely answered in full, and many admitted errors and thus received sanctions, but more senior staff are said to be less accommodating.
Downing Street staff told the BBC that there had been a “witch hunt” of younger officials across the parties who “did not think they were breaking the rules at the time because the Prime Minister was by them, some of the most senior officials in the country were by them ”.
They also said that the event in which Johnson attended was so crowded that some people were forced to sit on each other’s lap and that some mornings they went into the office to find empty bottles from parties the night before.
Amid the furore, Sadiq Khan announced on Tuesday that he had written to acting Met Commissioner Sir Stephen House asking Britain’s biggest force to explain to the public how decisions were made.
Khan, in addition to being mayor of London, oversees the Met as police and crime commissioner for the capital. He said he was concerned that trust and confidence in the police were being lost as disbelief in the decision grew after the images were leaked to ITV News.
A City Hall spokesman said: “He has asked them to take steps to reassure Londoners as well by giving this explanation directly to them because he is concerned that Londoners’ confidence in the police is being further eroded by this lack of clarity.
“The mayor has been aware that he can not and will not intervene in operational decisions, but with the investigation now completed, he has made this request in accordance with the 2011 Police Protocol Order, Section 23 (g).”
The protocol states that “the superintendent is accountable to the public and accountable to the PCC” and adds that the chief is responsible for “informing and informing the PCC of any matter or investigation for which the PCC may need to provide public safety either alone” or in the company of the superintendent ”.
It also says the senior constable should remain “politically independent of their PCC”.
When Gray’s report is published, Johnson will hope to draw a line under the scandal. He is expected to make a statement to the Commons, followed by questions at a private meeting with the Tory backers and potentially a press conference.
But Mark Harper, the Conservative MP and former chief whip who has called on Johnson to stop, said he was tired of “decent” colleagues “being asked to go out on television day after day and say things that honestly spoken is ridiculous and defensive. the indefensible ”.
He added that the Prime Minister had not been straightforward towards people and that senior ministers could not provide clear answers on basic questions.
Another Tory backbench critic of the Johnsons, Roger Gale, said the prime minister had misled the Commons by denying any meeting was held in November 2020.
He said: “It is a matter of resignation. I have made my own position clear. It is now a matter for my Conservative parliamentary colleagues to decide whether or not to initiate a motion of censure.”
Gray’s report was not originally expected to include photos taken at any of the offending parties, but could do so once the final version is delivered to No. 10.
Some insiders believe this will help prevent criticism that it is a money laundering, especially if such evidence emerges at a later date, for example during the investigation into whether Johnson misled Parliament by the Privileges Committee.
There may also be an attempt to counter the narrative that ministers have sown in recent months that such gatherings were short and frivolous. Referring to the condemnatory images and video evidence of the parties that have emerged so far, a source said: “A picture paints more than a thousand words.”
The Met has been referred by the Liberal Democrats to the Police Watchdog, The Independent Office for Police Conduct, on the handling of the investigation.
The IOPC referred the complaint to the Directorate for Professional Standards of the Met, who will have 15 days to respond with how they intend to deal with it.