Four possible consequences of Partygate
19th May 2022
Today the Metropolitan Police announced the end of their investigation.
This means that, in small part, the Partygate issue comes to an end.
But there are at least four things which may now flow from the circumstances of the unlawful gatherings at Number 10 during the pandemic.
The first, of course, is publication of the Sue Gray report.
This unseen report now has many expectations loaded onto it.
It is useful to remind yourself of her terms of reference.
Whatever is – and is not – in her published report, it is more likely than not to be in accordance with these terms of reference.
It is also useful to remind yourself of her truncated interim ‘update’.
That update indicated – though not in any definite way – where there may be problems for Downing Street when the final report is published (see this blog’s previous post here).
Two paragraphs of the update, in particular, are worth reminding yourself of:
“ii. At least some of the gatherings in question represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of Government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time.
“iii. At times it seems there was too little thought given to what was happening across the country in considering the appropriateness of some of these gatherings, the risks they presented to public health and how they might appear to the public. There were failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times. Some of the events should not have been allowed to take place. Other events should not have been allowed to develop as they did.”
Whether the report leads to any political change – and whether it is, in fact, the timebomb suggested by the earlier post – is, of course, determined by politics and the remarkable capacity of the current Prime Minister to evade accountability.
The second consequence of Partygate is – on the face of it – potentially more significant constitutionally.
This is the House of Commons committee’s investigation into whether the Prime Minister misled parliament.
Here a difficulty for the Prime Minister is not so much whether he realised the parties he attended were unlawful gatherings, but when he knew.
This is important because, as this blog has previously set out, it appears that the Prime Minister is not only under an obligation to put the record straight, but also to do so at the earliest opportunity.
This point was well explained by Alexander Horne in this thread:
However, the rule also has a second limb – which to my mind is equally important. Ministers are expected to correct “any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.” Thus, it is not sufficient for the PM to say that he did not “knowingly” mislead Parliament. /4
— Alexander Horne (@AlexanderHorne1) April 22, 2022
Even if the Prime Minister did not realise at the time the gatherings were unlawful, he no doubt knew once he saw the Sue Gray report and/or was advised in response to the Metropolitan Police investigation.
The committee may perhaps find that Boris Johnson did tell parliament at the first available opportunity, or it may hold the rule somehow does not apply, or it may censure him.
Again, the political consequences of any censure – or sanction – are not predictable with the current Prime Minister.
But misleading the House of Commons and not correcting the record as soon as one can are still serious matters, even in this age of Johnson, Brexit and 2022.
A third possible consequence of Partygate is the worrying normalisation of politically motivated reporting of opponents to the police.
This blog recently set out this concern – and the concern has also been articulated by newspaper columnists:
This is a really good article by @Dannythefink on how dangerous it is for the police to be driven into investigating covid breaches by politicians. https://t.co/utaEky2Nff pic.twitter.com/oRvJ7yQiwi
— Matthew Scott (@Barristerblog) May 18, 2022
This is an issue distinct from the obvious truth that politicians should not be above the law.
This issue is about when there is political pressure for there to be police intervention in respect of opponents, where such pressure would not be applied in respect of one’s own ‘side’.
Unless a report would be made to the police in the same circumstances when it was a political ally rather than an opponent, the report is being made on a partisan basis.
And routine goading of police involvement – and their coercive powers – on a partisan basis is not a good sign in any political system.
The fourth possible consequence is more optimistic.
The covid regulations were an exercise in bad and rushed legislation, where – even accounting for it being a pandemic – insufficient care was given to the rules imposed and to how they were enforced.
This was pointed out at the time – by this blog and many other legal commentators.
The fact there was a pandemic was used as an excuse for shoddy drafting rather than it being the reason.
And part of the shoddiness was, no doubt, because these were seen by those in the executive as being rules for other people – that is, for the rest of us.
One perhaps positive thing about Partygate is that senior officials, politicians and advisers in the government now are aware that such rules can apply to them.
This may mean that in the event of another pandemic requiring similar rules, the provisions will have more anxious scrutiny before being put in palce and enforced.
That said, of course, it is perhaps also possible that the government will just make sure that future rules expressly do not apply to Whitehall.
But we have to take what possible positives that we can from this gods-awful governmentally-self-inflicted political, legal and constitutional mess, known as Partygate.
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