The findings of the initial Sue Gray report published this week were highly critical about the culture at the heart of Government, the failure of leadership to enforce appropriate conduct and the unworkability of No 10 staff structures. As voters increasingly support strong standards and ethical leadership in public life, is the Prime Minister’s position becoming untenable?  

By Joanna George 

Research Associate, University of Cambridge 

A long-awaited initial report by senior civil servant, Sue Gray, on the investigation into alleged gatherings in Downing Street and Whitehall during Covid-19 restrictions was published this week. In a highly damaging assessment, Gray observed that some of the behaviour surrounding the gatherings was ‘difficult to justify,’ that there was a serious failure to uphold ‘the high standards expected of those working at the heart of Government’ and that there were ‘failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times’.

Due to ongoing investigations by the Metropolitan Police, a full report has yet to be published. But in the interim, the position of the Prime Minister is very uncertain and — bearing in mind the views of some of his colleagues and of the wider public — potentially untenable. What is the significance of the initial report and what challenges confront the Prime Minister? 

Firstly, the substantial damage to his credibility inside and outside of Parliament is gradually alienating him from voters, with recent polling suggesting that a majority of people agree that he should resign. This looks unlikely in the immediate term considering the Prime Minister’s statement that ‘This is a moment when we must look at ourselves in the mirror and we must learn.’ But as acknowledged in a new report by the UCL Constitution Unit, UK voters value the characteristics of honesty, integrity, and rule-abiding above all else in politicians.

If the full Sue Gray report does show that the Prime Minister knowingly misled Parliament three times by denying that gatherings took place whilst Covid-19 restrictions were in place, he would ‘be expected’ to offer his resignation in line with the Ministerial Code which is enforced through constitutional convention, not law. The Prime Minister has acknowledged that he would resign, but whether he will do this in practice is unclear.  

Secondly, there is growing concern within the Conservative Party about Johnson’s leadership abilities. The challenge to his position as leader of the Conservative Party may prove an alternative route to removing Johnson from his role as UK Prime Minister if he himself fails to resign. Following Conservative Party rules, a leadership contest can be triggered if 15% (54) of Conservative Party MPs write letters to the Chair of the 1922 Committee, which consists of all backbench Conservative MPs, saying they no longer have confidence in Johnson.  

A vote of no confidence would then follow, with Conservative MPs either voting in support of or against him. If more than 50% (180) of Conservative MPs vote against him, then a leadership election would be triggered. This is separate to a vote of no confidence in the Government where MPs from all political parties decide whether they want the Government to continue, and which could result in a general election being called and a new Prime Minister appointed.  

Conservative MPs are not publicly compelled to announce when they have submitted letters of no confidence, but at least 10 have done this so far. The ability to hold a vote of no confidence in the party leader is limited to once every 12 months under Conservative Party rules, although there is speculation that the rules may change to permit two votes. As the countdown to the UK’s local elections in May begins, voters’ and the Conservative Party’s concerns with the Prime Minister risk haemorrhaging in the public sphere.

With a new poll showing that 60% of Brits support a vote of no confidence in Johnson by Conservative MPs, a potential consequence of Johnson remaining in office could mean the beginning of long-term electoral damage to the Conservative Party and erosion of public trust in them to govern. The loss of what was once a safe Conservative seat in the recent North Shropshire by-election shows that there is a strong correlation between questions of public trust and integrity and who voters politically support.  

Questions about standards in public life are becoming increasingly important to both politicians and voters. In November 2021, the SNP put down a motion of censure against the Prime Minister to reduce his salary and censure him over his conduct for ‘frequently violating the sixth Principle of Public Life’ – honesty – amongst other issues. Whilst MPs rejected the SNP motion with a majority of 107, it is undoubtedly the case that these issues are assuming increasing prominence as questions of integrity assume the political centre-stage. The Conservative Party will therefore have to choose carefully between the uncertain political risk of continuing to support Johnson or engaging with public opinion which confirms that voters seek and expect honesty, integrity and rule-abiding from their political leaders. 

The constitutional conventions under which the UK political system operates and the standards in public life which form the behavioural ideal for people working within it are being pushed to the limit. Until the Sue Gray report is published in full, we cannot know for certain the extent to which the Prime Minister and the Government has stretched its actions (or lack of them) to the point of illegality. But what is certain is that trust is key to effective governance and those who fail to cultivate it risk becoming adrift from those they seek to govern.