The Metropolitan police are investigating allegations surrounding parties at Downing Street and in Whitehall after receiving evidence from Sue Gray’s inquiry – a move which will delay the report’s publication.
Boris Johnson will now face a wait for the police investigation to conclude before Gray’s inquiry is likely to be published after Cressida Dick announced Scotland Yard’s U-turn.
Both the Cabinet Office and the Met police have concluded that allegations uncovered by the inquiry are serious enough to warrant investigation beyond Gray’s remit.
On Tuesday, Met Commissioner Cressida Dick told the London Assembly her force had launched a criminal investigation into eight events where lockdown rules were allegedly broken, as a result of information provided by the Cabinet Office.
The move is a significant change of tack by the Met, which previously said its policy was not to undertake retrospective investigations of lockdown breaches.
The Met commissioner said: “As a result, firstly, of the information provided by the Cabinet Office inquiry team, and, secondly, my own officers’ assessment, I can confirm that the Met is now investigating a number of events that took place at Downing Street and Whitehall in the last two years in relation to potential breaches of Covid-19 regulations.”
Gray has provided her “outline findings from its inquiry”, according to the Met, but the Cabinet Office said she would continue to take evidence.
The Met has asked the Cabinet Office investigation team to formally send the evidence it has regarding the events police are now investigating, the Guardian understands. Up until now, the Cabinet office team has been briefing officers as they secured evidence.
The decision to investigate means they believe there appears to be evidence of wrongdoing, those involved knew or should have known it was wrong, and that those involved may not have any reasonable excuse for their actions.
Police will not give a timescale for their inquiry, but they are expected to contact those under investigation. A Cabinet Office source said they were hoping for an update within weeks but that an investigation could take longer.
Officers will have to unpick which regulations were in place at the time the parties and gatherings took place, as the rules were regularly changing.
A Scotland Yard spokesperson said: “The MPS has had ongoing contact with the Cabinet Office in relation to its inquiry into allegations of gatherings. Throughout this process specialist MPS detectives, supported by senior officers, have continually considered whether criminal investigation into any of these events was proportionate based on the available information. In recent days the Cabinet Office has provided outline findings from its inquiry to the MPS.”
Dick told the London assembly police and crime committee: “I absolutely understand that there is deep public concern about the allegations that have been in the media over the past several weeks.”
Dick said police would not normally investigate retrospective breaches, but emphasised it was not a blanket ban. She said there were three factors that could merit a retrospective investigation.
Firstly, there is evidence, those involved knew – or ought to have known – what they were doing broke the laws. Other factors, the Met commissioner said, included “where not investigating would significantly undermine the legitimacy of the law”, and “where there was little ambiguity around the absence of any reasonable defence”.
She said police and the Cabinet Office investigation headed by Gray have been liaising.
Dick then announced her U-turn, after weeks of her force being criticised for not investigating numerous allegations.
Neil Coyle, the Labour MP who referred the parties to the Metropolitan police, said Dick had “serious questions to answer about why the investigation could only be launched now.”.
Coyle told the Guardian: “It has taken a civil servant whose boss is the prime minister to insist the Metropolitan police investigate these alleged breaches – including taking evidence from its own officers.”
A Cabinet Office spokesman said work would continue on the inquiry. “The investigation being carried out by Sue Gray is continuing,” he said. “There is in ongoing contact with the Metropolitan Police Service.”
The inquiry’s terms of reference state: “As with all internal investigations, if during the course of the work any evidence emerges of behaviour that is potentially a criminal offence, the matter will be referred to the police and the Cabinet Office’s work may be paused.
“Matters relating to adherence to the law are properly for the police to investigate and the Cabinet Office will liaise with them as appropriate.”
Angela Rayner, deputy Labour leader, called on the prime minister to resign. She said: “With Boris Johnson’s Downing Street now under police investigation, how on earth can he think he can stay on as prime minister? Boris Johnson is a national distraction. Conservative MPs should stop propping him up and he should finally do the decent thing and resign.”