It is extremely tempting to dismiss the inquiry into last year’s Downing Street Christmas parties as a phoney exercise that will produce a bucket of Whitehall whitewash. After all, the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, who is conducting the inquiry, was handpicked by Boris Johnson to be his principal civil servant only last year. And few prime ministers, least of all one as slippery as Mr Johnson, are in the habit of assigning such inquiries to people who could make life difficult for them.
Mr Case may also have played a role in the events he is investigating. Although the Cabinet Office says Mr Case did not attend any of the Christmas “gatherings”, it is not clear whether he was the source of the “repeated assurances” on which Mr Johnson relies to claim that there was no Christmas party in No 10 in 2020. Common sense suggests he may have been, and the paymaster general, Michael Ellis, twice failed to answer the question on Thursday. If he was indeed that source, and the inquiry concludes that there was no party, it will be a tainted finding. If he concludes that there was one, Mr Case’s own head may be on the block. For these reasons, it would have been better to give the job to someone more clearly independent.
Nevertheless, the Case inquiry should still be taken seriously – for the moment. It is the only show in town. It is investigating an event that has done enormous reputational damage to Mr Johnson’s government. It is also unquestionably a high-stakes exercise. Mr Case has it in his power to produce a report that could force the fall of a prime minister. Labour and the SNP have said Mr Johnson should resign if he has lied. Several Conservative MPs, while remaining loyal for the present, have said the same. The ConservativeHome pressure group, which also backs the prime minister, said on Thursday that an eventual vote of no confidence in him is now more likely than not. Critics should therefore continue to hammer away at the issues that Mr Case is probing, but should do so with their eyes open.
The opposition parties did this in the Commons on Thursday with some effect. Downing Street was forced to refer two more parties that were potential breaches of Covid rules to the inquiry, along with the notorious one on 18 December. Others may be added to the list in future, according to the inquiry’s terms of reference, which were published on Thursday. This should happen now. There should be no wriggle room.
The inquiry will have access to “all relevant records”. This must include WhatsApp messages. On Thursday, the Electoral Commission revealed that Mr Johnson had used WhatsApp in November 2020 to ask – successfully – for the Conservative party donor Lord Brownlow to provide more cash for the refurbishment of his Downing Street apartment. This contradicts Mr Johnson’s later claim to Lord Geidt, the independent adviser on ministerial interests, that he was unaware of Lord Brownlow’s role as the donor. Lord Geidt must now decide if he has been lied to. It is a big call. But Mr Case must also secure his inquiry against any similar concealments. He must move fast to prevent evidence being deleted.
Following Allegra Stratton’s resignation on Wednesday, Mr Johnson may see this investigation as a device to identify further scapegoats. This is a real danger. Mr Johnson is fighting for his political life. That is why this investigation is a major test, not just of a desperate prime minister, but of the probity and independence of the civil service. Events have created a situation in which Mr Case holds the government’s credibility in his hands. He is ultimately a servant of the public and the law, not of the prime minister. He must carry out a serious investigation, not a sham.