The notion that a civil servant working within the structure she is tasked with scrutinising can get to the truth of the Downing Street parties is an affront to Britain’s political system, says Brian Cathcart

Whatever the Sue Gray inquiry tells us, and whatever its consequences, we should not lose sight of the simple fact that the process she has led falls far, far short of what should happen in a civilised democracy.

Setting aside the issue of the Metropolitan Police’s astonishing refusal to uphold the law, the idea that the Second Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office is the right person to investigate the scandal of the Downing Street parties is absurd and insulting. 

Where any potential wrongdoing by the Prime Minister and his senior staff is concerned – and in this case we are talking about potential law-breaking – the public has a right to expect an investigation that is indisputably independent.

The merest whiff of political influence or personal attachment undermines the credibility of the outcome, whatever it may be, and it also shows how far we have crossed the line into state corruption. 

Gray may have the morals of a saint and the investigative skills of Sherlock Holmes, but she is also indisputably a part of the structure that is under investigation: a career civil servant, a senior member of the Cabinet Office staff, and a colleague of those under inspection.

Nor does the notion that she is a specialist in government ethics and propriety come to her rescue. Yes, she worked in that field for years, but whatever her personal contribution may have been, those same years have seen a shocking decline in ethical standards. That the lockdown-breaking parties took place at all – and we know that they did – proves a general failure to maintain integrity in public service. 

Sue Gray is simply not the right person or even the right sort of person for the job – and it does her little credit as an expert in the field of ethics that she accepted this assignment knowing that the full contents of her inquiry might never be released to the public.  

That arrangements as flawed as these are tolerated at any level is a measure of how far the indefensible has become the norm in Britain today. 

So what should have happened?

Democratic Deficit

The investigation into the Downing Street parties should have been led by someone who (a) commands public trust; (b) has no personal connections inside Downing Street; and (c) has been selected according to a process over which neither the Prime Minister nor any of his staff has had any possible influence. That person should also have had independent expert support. 

This is not idealism and it is not impractical – it can be done and it should have been. Those who run the country are under an obligation to show that they have done everything in their power to ensure that matters as serious as these are handled in a way that is above criticism.   

Instead, we have seen that obligation royally flouted. The very idea that the Second Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office will have any influence at all on what consequences flow from the Downing Street parties scandal is an insult to democracy. 

All of this will be true whatever the Gray report says – whether she saves Boris Johnson, sinks him or something in between. Or indeed, if some trick is found by which her findings are kept from us altogether. 

This is no way for a mature democracy to behave. If ever we manage to rid ourselves of these abusers and corrupters of the political system, the reforms that follow should include arrangements to make independent appointments and independent scrutiny the norm in our public services. 

Brian Cathcart is Professor of Journalism at Kingston University London and the author of ‘The Case of Stephen Lawrence’ (1999)


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