CSW breaks down what the cabinet secretary's probe will cover and asks former Whitehall insiders what we can expect to find out next
Boris Johnson has asked civil service head Simon Case to investigate allegations that officials and political staff broke Covid rules by holding one or more Christmas parties last year. CSW breaks down what the probe will cover and asks former Whitehall insiders what these internal inquiries look like, who is involved and what happens next.
What will Simon Case's inquiry cover?
Ministers have confirmed the inquiry will look at events reported to have taken place at 10 Downing Street last year on 27 November, during the England-wide Covid lockdown, and 18 December, when London was under Tier 3 measures.
Case will also investigate a Department for Education gathering instigated by then-education secretary Gavin Williamson. While No.10 continues to deny any parties took place, DfE has confirmed the gathering happened and said it accepts "it would have been better not to have gathered in this way at that particular time".
Earlier this week, Boris Johnson suggested Case would have the option to widen the scope of the inquiry to look at other events, saying "that’s a matter frankly for him". However, a statement in the Commons yesterday by paymaster general Michael Ellis specified only those three dates, suggesting it may be more constrained than the PM suggested.
Case's primary goal will be "to establish swiftly a general understanding of the gatherings, including attendance, the setting and the purpose, with reference to adherence to the guidance in place at the time", Ellis said.
How do these inquiries work?
“You’re trying to find the evidence – the truth – of whatever the particular issue is. Once you understand exactly what happened and you’ve got the facts, you can talk about where you go from there,” Gus O’Donnell, who was head of the civil service from 2005 to 2011, tells CSW.
Once the head of the civil service gets the go-ahead from the PM, they will typically task the Cabinet Office propriety and ethics director general with carrying out interviews. Work on this particular inquiry will be carried out by Cabinet Office staff, under Case's direction, supported by the Government Legal Department. They will have the authority to speak to staff and access any relevant records.
Investigators will be looking to find out whether anyone broke the civil service code or went against HR guidance. In this case, they will also be looking for any indication civil servants broke the law.
The code is “a pretty good set of principles for investigating something like this”, says Alex Thomas, who was late civil service head Jeremy Heywood's principal private secretary. Case and those working with him will need to keep these principles in mind and to “look into it in an honest and dispassionate way,” he says.
What questions will the investigators be asking?
Case and his staff will be asking precise questions to determine exactly how the events came about and what they looked like, O’Donnell says. “Clearly, there are a number of people in an office. Was it that they just decided, while they were working, that they would have a drink at the same time? Or was it more like what you or I think of as a party – 'after work, we'll all get together in one room and invite other people' and that sort of thing? What kind of event was it and how many people were involved? How many from outside? And clearly, because of Covid, was there social distancing?”
Determining the core facts – whether the parties happened – should be straightforward, Thomas says. "What is more difficult is to untangle the different threads of who, what and when – and the extent to which the PM was involved and what the consequences should be."
"It should be quite easy to establish what happened but it will be a difficult judgement call," he adds. "The critical thing for me is who took those decisions and who knew about them."
Things could get sticky if Case finds reason to believe Boris Johnson knew about any of the events in question, given that he has assured parliament so confidently that they did not take place. If not, the cab sec will want to know where he got his information from. As Whitehall expert and former civil servant Jill Rutter has said, "the real issue now is less the party itself, but whether No.10 officials misled the PM, or the PM deliberately misled parliament and his colleagues".
What happens next?
Once the interviews have taken place, Case will compile the evidence and determine whether any rules were broken.
The inquiry should not take long. Speaking to BBC Radio 4 PM this week, another former head of the civil service, Bob Kerslake, predicted it could take a "matter of weeks" to complete. "It’s going to be next year but it is not a difficult one to do, except for the consequences, which could be quite grave,” he said.
If civil servants are found to have broken the rules, it will fall to Case as the head of the civil service, along with the relevant HR personnel, to decide on any disciplinary action.
If the probe finds ministers guilty of wrongdoing, however, it will be up to the prime minister as the arbiter of the ministerial code to decide what action to take.
Will the police be involved?
Soon after news of the alleged Christmas party on 18 December broke, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner wrote to Case saying he should call in the Metropolitan Police to investgate. The force has held off so far, due to a lack of evidence.
But if Case's inquiry finds evidence of law breaking, he will hand over his evidence to the Met, which will decide whether and how to investigate. The cabinet secretary's investigation may need to be paused if this happens.
As Kerslake noted, investigators will therefore need to "have a mind to the fact this is not just about disciplinary action in No. 10; it could be potentially criminal action where the police will get involved".
Will the results of the inquiry be made public?
Ministers have said the findings of Case's investigation will be provided to the House of Commons and made public – although there is no assurance as to how detailed the published information will be. As an internal HR matter, disciplinary action against individuals will remain confidential.
“It’s not a favourite part of the job for any cabinet secretary,” O’Donnell says.
“In general, it's a bit of a no win, because if you find someone innocent, it's always labelled by the media as a whitewash. And if you find anybody guilty, then it's never enough – they always say, well, that's just part of [the truth], so it's very hard to calibrate these things carefully.”