A senior official dubbed the ‘most powerful civil servant you have never heard of’ will be taking over the investigation into the alleged Christmas parties held in Number 10 last year.
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case quit his role leading the inquiry into a number of alleged gatherings on Friday, after it emerged a quiz was held in his own department that he was aware of and spoke at.
MailOnline understands that one event was held on December 17 last year, with an email sent out to around 15 people in Mr Case’s Private Office titled ‘Christmas Quiz’.
Whitehall heavy hitter Sue Gray has been installed in his place to carry out inquiries into three alleged gatherings at Downing Street and the Department for Education in November and December last year, when indoor mixing was banned.
The terms of what was then Mr Case’s investigation said it could be widened to include any relevant allegations.
Speaking today, ex-No 10 chief of staff Gavin Barwell said he ‘can’t think from his time in government of a better person to put in charge of this review than Sue Gray.’
Meanwhile, Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said Ms Gray now has the task of restoring public trust.
Ms Gray, who is second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, was once described by BBC Newsnight’s then policy editor as ‘the most powerful person you’ve never heard of’.
Speaking to that same programme on Friday, Tory MP Richard Holden described her as ‘formidable’ and said she was ‘not a pushover’.
She oversaw the Plebgate inquiry in 2012 after ex-chief whip Andrew Mitchell was accused of calling a policeman a ‘pleb’ at the Downing Street gates, and was once described as ‘deputy God’ by then Labour MP Paul Flynn in a meeting the same year.
A Downing Street spokesman said in a statement: ‘To ensure the ongoing investigation retains public confidence the Cabinet Secretary has recused himself for the remainder of the process.
‘The work will be concluded by Sue Gray, second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
‘She will ascertain the facts and present her findings to the Prime Minister.’
Sources admitted that alcohol was consumed at desks with about six people present, and others participating virtually, but there was apparently no catering.
Whitehall heavy hitter Sue Gray (pictured above) has been installed in Simon Case’s place to carry out inquiries into three alleged gatherings at Downing Street and the Department for Education in November and December last year, when indoor mixing was banned
The Cabinet Secretary quit his role leading the inquiry into the alleged gatherings on Friday, after it emerged a quiz was held in his own department that he was aware of and spoke at
MailOnline understands that one event was held on December 17 last year, with an email sent out to around 15 people in Mr Case’s Private Office titled ‘Christmas Quiz’ (file photo)
Lord Barwell told BBC Radio 4’s Today: ‘I can’t think from my time in government of a better person to put in charge of this review than Sue Gray.
‘She had the role in charge of propriety and ethics in government when I was chief of staff. I saw her handle a number of investigations in a way that was completely independent and her determination always to get to the truth and present the Prime Minister with all the evidence.
‘So for those of your listeners who don’t know who this person is, let me just give you my testimony that I think she is exactly the right kind of person and we can be confident that we will get the facts.’
And Ms Rayner said: ‘At the moment, people are saying ‘which department didn’t have a party?”
She added: ‘It’s incredibly disappointing because we all know what was happening when these parties were going on, people couldn’t see their loved ones who were dying, and were making incredible sacrifices.
‘So I do think that the investigation has to get to the bottom, but I think that the evidence already is showing that Boris Johnson has set a tone for this government and has allowed this to happen under his watch.’
She said Ms Gray should hand over any evidence of law-breaking which she uncovers to the police.
Ms Gray was previously director-general of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office from 2012 to 2018, and is seen as a figure who would not pull any punches in an inquiry.
Former Tory MP and Cabinet office minister Oliver Letwin is reported to have said of Ms Gray: ‘It took me precisely two years before I realised who it is that runs Britain. Our great United Kingdom is actually entirely run by a lady called Sue Gray, the head of ethics or something in the Cabinet Office. Unless she agrees, things just don’t happen.’
She is also part of the panel deciding on who will be next chair of the media regulator Ofcom.
However, the SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, said ‘having somebody else from the Civil Service marking their own isn’t good enough’.
Ms Gray, who is second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, was once described by BBC Newsnight’s then policy editor as ‘the most powerful person you’ve never heard of’
Simon Case’s replacement? The ethics chief from ‘Plebgate’ storm
Sue Gray has been described as the most powerful civil servant you have never heard of.
In her former job as director-general of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office she had enormous power and long experience in Westminster scandals, and developed a fearsome reputation among ministers and officials.
She dealt with complaints against ministers on behalf of the Cabinet Secretary and Prime Minister.
Her inquiry into the so-called Plebgate affair led to the resignation of minister Andrew Mitchell.
Her investigation into Damian Green led to his forced resignation after she discovered he had lied about pornography found on his Commons computer.
From 2018 to 2021 she served as the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Finance at the Northern Ireland Executive.
She returned to London to head up work on the Union earlier this year.
Mr Blackford told the BBC’s Newsnight programme that ‘it needs to be someone from authority from outwith Government, from outwith the Civil Service. I would suggest that the best way to do that would be by having a judge-led inquiry’.
Ms Gray was brought in after the Guido Fawkes website reported on Friday that two Christmas parties were held in Mr Case’s department, the Cabinet Office, in December 2020, when restrictions were in place.
Although Mr Case did not take part he was ‘aware of what they were doing’ just outside his own personal office, and at one point stopped to ‘thank them for their hard work’ as he moved between meetings.
A second event last December allegedly featured drinks for a group of people in Mr Case’s office before attendees continued the party elsewhere. However, the Cabinet Office denies that event took place.
The allegations surfaced as Tory chairman Oliver Dowden insisted that Mr Case’s inquiry will ‘vindicate’ Mr Johnson’s position that no rules had been broken.
He has been looking into alleged No10 Christmas party on December 18, as well as leaving dos and a Cabinet Office quiz.
Boris Johnson ordered Mr Case to investigate last week after extraordinary footage emerged of his former press secretary Allegra Stratton and No10 aides giggling about a ‘party’ that was held in Downing Street last year.
The findings of Mr Case’s probe were expected by today, but they have been pushed back.
The damaging scandal has been blamed for the Tories’ disastrous loss in the North Shropshire by-election overnight.
Speaking to reporters on a visit in his Uxbridge constituency today, Mr Johnson insisted the public was more interested in other matters such as coronavirus, and suggested the media reporting on lockdown-busting parties had caused the Tories to lose the North Shropshire by-election.
He told broadcasters ‘what people have been hearing is just a constant litany of stuff about politics and politicians and stuff that isn’t about them’.
Earlier, Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford called for Mr Case to be removed from the investigation and to resign.
Mr Blackford said: ‘The Prime Minister’s appointed lead investigator into the Downing Street parties has also been reported to have hosted a party in his office – whilst thousands were forced to spend the Christmas season apart as a result of necessary coronavirus restrictions. He, along with his inquiry report, must go.’
He said it was ‘vital there be an inquiry led by an independent arbitrator – someone who owes the UK government nothing’, and in a letter to the PM suggested it should be judge-led.
By far the most damaging has been reports that a party was held at Downing Street during a 2020 Christmas lockdown when such festivities were banned, with a video emerging this week which showed staff laughing and joking about it.
It prompted the tearful resignation of the PM’s former press secretary, Allegra Stratton
How many parties is the Government alleged to have held last year and when did they happen?
PARTIES IN DOWNING STREET
Dom’s Gone bash – November 13: Dominic Cummings alleges that the PM held a gathering at his grace-and-favour flat on November 13 last year, the day the adviser was ousted from Downing Street. Mr Cummings also suggested there had been ‘other flat parties’.
Leaving do – November 27: The Prime Minister reportedly gave a speech at a packed Number 10 leaving do for a ‘senior aide’. Sources claimed that ’40 or 50 people’ were present.
Christmas party – December 18: Staff in Downing Street are believed to have held a Christmas party, with reports that dozens of people attended the event, some wearing festive jumpers and exchanging Secret Santa presents. London had been placed into Tier 3 restrictions on December 16 – the highest level of curbs on freedoms at the time which banned people from different households mixing indoors. Downing Street has said Boris Johnson did not attend the event.
Quiz night – December: Sources told the BBC that a separate Christmas quiz event was held for Number 10 staff at some point in December. Everyone was apparently invited to attend and to form teams. One source said some people attended virtually via Zoom but others did attend in person and sat in groups of six. Downing Street has insisted the quiz was ‘virtual’.
… AND ELSEWHERE IN WHITEHALL
December 10: Then-education secretary Gavin Williamson hosted a Department for Education party for ‘up to 24 people’ on December 10. The gathering, which included food and drink, took place in the department’s canteen. The department has admitted the event happened.
December 14: About 25 people gathered in the basement of the Conservative party’s Matthew Parker St offices in Westminster. The Times reported last night that advisers at Conservative campaign headquarters held an event with Shaun Bailey, the party’s unsuccessful candidate for mayor of London this May.
Ms Rayner also said: ‘Boris Johnson as Prime Minister has set the tone for the civil service and the rest of government.
‘Which each new revelation there is growing evidence of a culture of turning a blind eye to the rules.
‘Labour made it clear when the investigation was launched that the person in charge should be uncompromised and able to make a fair and independent judgement. These fresh revelations put that into question.’
Mr Dowden told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I understand and I appreciate that there was a perception, particularly from the media coverage surrounding those alleged events, that we were not abiding by the rules.
‘I have to say to you that there is an ongoing inquiry by the Cabinet Secretary and I’m confident that that inquiry will vindicate the Prime Minister’s assertion that everything that happened was within the rules.
‘But I do appreciate the noise and the sound around that was something that was of concern to voters.’
Mr Johnson was accused of breaking the rules imposed by his own government after it was revealed he acted as an impromptu quiz master in Downing Street amid Tier 2 restrictions last year.
In an image published in the Sunday Mirror, Johnson is seen in front of a laptop in the No. 10 library closely shadowed by two colleagues, one draped in tinsel, the other wearing a Christmas hat.
The quiz is believed to have taken place on December 15 – just three days before the now infamous Downing Street party.
Government sources cited by the Times said the Cabinet Secretary ‘would look at credible allegations of other gatherings and you can’t really say that a photo of the prime minister is not a credible allegation.’
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi defended the Prime Minister after it emerged Mr Johnson personally hosted a Christmas quiz in Downing Street last year.
Mr Zahawi said Mr Johnson had not broken any coronavirus rules by taking part in the event.
Downing Street has insisted the quiz was ‘virtual’ but reports claimed many staff were huddled by computers in Number 10 as they conferred on questions and drank alcohol.
At the time of the quiz, London was in Tier 2 which dictated there should be no mixing of households indoors, apart from support bubbles, and a maximum of six people outside.
The Sunday Mirror reported Mr Johnson surprised staff by turning up on screen as quiz master for one round lasting between 10 and 15 minutes.
A Number 10 spokeswoman said: ‘This was a virtual quiz.
‘Downing Street staff were often required to be in the office to work on the pandemic response so those who were in the office for work may have attended virtually from their desks.
‘The Prime Minister briefly took part virtually in a quiz to thank staff for their hard work throughout the year.’
Staff reportedly held a Christmas bash in Number 10 on December 18, with a leaked video – filmed four days after the alleged gathering – showing senior Downing Street aides joking about a ‘fictional’ party.
A second reported Downing Street event – an aide’s leaving do which is said to have taken place on November 27 – was allegedly attended by the Prime Minister, who The Mirror said made a speech.
Mr Case is investigating both alleged events, along with a festive celebration arranged at the Department for Education, which officials have admitted did take place and have expressed regret over.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has since confirmed that staff working for Therese Coffey drank alcohol and ate takeaways ‘late into the evening’ on a number of occasions while coronavirus restrictions were in place.
It comes after the Sunday Mirror reported that political staff and officials frequently drank after work until the early hours of the morning, and ordered food to the Work and Pension Secretary’s office at the department’s Whitehall headquarters.
The DWP has confirmed there were times when alcohol was consumed in a work space outside the Cabinet minister’s Whitehall office but stressed it took place while work was continuing past normal employment hours.
A source said the desks in the office are socially distanced and there was ‘no party atmosphere going on’.