The UK education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, has repeatedly refused to say who organised a meeting between Boris Johnson and top civil servant Sue Gray, as Westminster awaits her report into lockdown parties in Downing Street.
It has emerged that the pair met, with both sides – No 10 and Gray’s team – denying they called the meeting.
Zahawi was asked repeatedly by Sophy Ridge on Sky News on Sunday who called for the meeting, and why; but he insisted he did not know.
“I don’t know the details of all the meetings that happen at No 10. What I do know is that the prime minister has never intervened in the investigation that Sue Gray has conducted. He’s always wanted her to go wherever the evidence takes her.”
Zahawi added: “I’ve worked with Sue Gray, I’ve known Sue Gray. I know she has the highest level of professionalism, and her integrity is unquestionable. She didn’t pull her punches in her first report.”
Pressed for further details of the meeting between Gray and Johnson, Zahawi said: “Meetings happen every day; my diary’s full of meetings. You can ask me a question, ‘who put this meeting in my diary … it will have gone in my diary because someone in my team would have thought this is the right thing to do.”
Asked again on BBC’s Sunday Morning about the meeting, Zahawi said: “The prime minister meets his senior civil servants all the time. [Gray’s] also a senior civil servant responsible for levelling up.”
Acknowledging that Johnson is Gray’s ultimate boss, he again declined to say who had called the meeting, insisting: “I don’t believe that is material to the outcome of the investigation, because Sue Gray is professional and has the highest level of integrity.”
Gray’s report is expected to be published this week, and up to 30 officials have been warned that they could be named directly, or be easily identifiable. These individuals have been given until 5pm on Sunday to respond.
These are expected to include the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, the most senior civil servant, who is regarded as a likely scapegoat despite not receiving a fine.
Gray was appointed to take over the investigation into parties last December from Case himself, after he was revealed to have hosted an event in his own office, for which invitations were sent out saying “Christmas Party!”. A government spokesperson said at the time that officials in Case’s office took part in a “virtual quiz”.
Case had been expected to appear before MPs on the public administration and constitutional affairs committee on Tuesday, but ministers unexpectedly cancelled the hearing last week shortly after it was announced.
The Metropolitan police revealed on Thursday that they had completed their investigation into lockdown-busting gatherings in Downing Street and Whitehall, levying 156 fines in total, covering eight separate dates.
The prime minister has received a single fixed-penalty notice, for the birthday party held in the cabinet room in June 2020. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and Johnson’s wife Carrie Johnson, were also fined for attending the same event.
Many civil servants were astonished that the prime minister did not receive further fines – particularly since he is known to have attended some of the events for which others are believed to have been fined.
Johnson is expected to give a statement in parliament when Gray’s report is published. He will then face an investigation by the House of Commons privileges committee over whether he misled parliament when the Partygate stories first emerged, by insisting that “all guidance was followed” in No 10.