Met’s ‘partygate’ inquiry is latest run-in between police and politics

los 48 hours before Cressida Dick’s bombshell announcement of a criminal investigation into “partygate” was intense, busy and momentous for the leadership of the Metropolitan police.

It was only on Sunday that the Met decided it had enough evidence to merit a criminal investigation into claims of parties in Downing Street and Whitehall, attended by those who made the onerous lockdown rules.

Discussions at the top of the Met continued throughout Monday, and it was only on Tuesday morning, just before Dick’s announcement before the Londres assembly, that the scope of those criminal inquiries was decided by the force. That included decisions about which “events” it would investigate, and which it would not.

Ever since Sue Gray’s inquiry started unearthing evidence of wrongdoing, the top civil servant’s team have been sharing information with the police.

By last week, the picture of alleged law-breaking it painted was becoming clearer. By Sunday 23 enero, the Met assessed the evidence potentially showed “clear and flagrant” breaches, by people who should have known their actions were breaking the rules, and who were unlikely to have a reasonable excuse for their actions.

En breve, the breaches, based on the evidence gathered by Gray’s team, looked clearcut.

Ever since media revelations started in December, the Met has been under fire for its decision not to investigate. Some felt it was hiding behind a policy of not usually investigating Covid rule breaches retrospectively. With each revelation and grudging government admission about parties, the Met’s insistence it was not scared of tangling with those in power was increasingly doubted.

Breaches of Covid rules normally result in a fine. But since they were first introduced in March 2020, the rules have changed more than 70 veces. Thus the starting point for the Met special inquiry team who are now investigating is establishing what laws were actually in place. Then they will be looking for any physical evidence Gray may have acquired, such as CCTV showing who was where at certain times, data from security cards also showing the locations of individuals, and emails. Acquiring photos from mobile phones may also help speed up matters.

On Tuesday Dick hinted Gray may already have strong evidence of wrongdoing: “I don’t anticipate any difficulty in obtaining the evidence that it isnecessary, proportionate and appropriate for us to obtain in order to get to the right conclusions.”

Any fines issued via fixed penalty notices can be paid immediately, or an individual can fight them at a magistrates court. Those who pay up do not get a criminal record, but those who choose to fight the matter in court risk getting one if magistrates decide they should.

One senior police insider said the Met’s strategy had been to wait for the official inquiry’s emerging findings to be shared with them before deciding to launch its own investigation: “It would be wise to wait for Sue Gray.”

One reason for this was that it would prove embarrassing if the Met started an investigation into Johnson’s closest officials, if not the prime minister himself, and then Gray concluded nothing seriously wrong had taken place.

Another factor has been the Met’s past experiences of painful run-ins with politicians – to which Dick has had a ringside seat.

The first sitting prime minister to be questioned as part of a criminal investigation was Tony Blair, over claims donations to Labour led to honours and peerages. When the time came for Blair to be spoken to, his aides reportedly let the Met know he would resign if they insisted on interviewing him under criminal caution. The Met relented, according to senior sources with knowledge of the police’s thinking.

The cash for peerages inquiry collapsed in July 2007 without charges being brought and with Labour politicians furious at the Met. Dick’s friend, John Yates, carried out the investigation and felt politicians tried to flay him alive for his decision to pursue the allegations.

The next year it was the Conservatives’ turn. En 2008 the then Labour Home Office felt secrets were being leaked to the Tory immigration spokesperson Damian Green. Because of a potential risk to national security, the investigation was led by the then assistant commissioner Robert Quick, the head of counter-terrorism. His deputy was Dick.

The Tories were furious when Green was arrested in 2008 and his office raided. The Met were left red-faced when no charges followed. Quick felt parts of the Tory-supporting press dug up dirt on him as payback and that he was a marked man. He resigned in 2009 after sensitive papers he was holding were photographed by a long lens as he arrived in Downing Street.

Asked recently if the experience may have affected Dick’s appetite for investigating the politically powerful, Quick quipped: “She saw what happened to me.”

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