What a difference four days make.
On Tuesday, when Dame Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, announced that Scotland Yard would be investigating lockdown parties at Downing Street, there was no suggestion the criminal inquiry could in any way derail Sue Gray’s report.
Nothing much changed in the police position over the next two days.
Wednesday and Thursday came and went with no sign of the Gray report – but with police still insisting behind the scenes that there was nothing to worry about, nothing to look at here.
Then Friday came the bombshell.
Gray’s inquiry can be published but without any mention of any events that police are investigating.
In other words, if an event did not break the rules, the Met is happy for the public to read about it.
But if the gathering was potentially law-breaking then it will be cut from anything placed in the public domain until criminal investigations are complete.
The question now is why the extraordinary volte face; why the about turn that conveniently kicks into the long grass the tricky matter, for example, of a birthday party for the prime minister that was allegedly organised by his young wife?
In its statement released on Friday morning, the Metropolitan Police would only say: “For the events the Met is investigating, we asked for minimal reference to be made in the Cabinet Office report.
“The Met did not ask for any limitations on other events in the report, or for the report to be delayed, but we have had ongoing contact with the Cabinet Office, including on the content of the report, to avoid any prejudice to our investigation.”
Sources at the Met insisted they were not seeking to hold up the publication of the report, but now seemed to be saying the public would not get the chance to see the most damning details until their work was complete.
Asked how long that might be, “how long is a piece of string” was the reply.
Keen not to put any sort of a time frame on the length of the criminal investigation, the source added: “You don’t know how deep the hole is until you start digging.”
The Met would not explain what, if anything had shifted, or whether the ongoing discussions were “fractious”.
Lawyers are sceptical.
Breaking lockdown rules are almost entirely dealt with through a series of escalating fixed penalty notices.
Cases that go to court go no further than a magistrates’ court.
In other words there is no jury to be influenced by Gray’s conclusions (said incidentally to be scathing of Downing Street’s partying culture).
Nazir Afzal, a former chief Crown prosecutor for the North West, said on Twitter: “This is absolute nonsense from the Met Police. A purely factual report by Sue Gray cannot possibly prejudice a police investigation. They just have to follow the evidence, of which the report will be a part.”
Adam Wagner, a human rights barrister who has become expert on interpreting complex coronavirus laws and explaining them to the public on social media, said: “I am not a criminal lawyer so perhaps I am missing something.
“How would a factual civil service report about events the police are investigating ‘prejudice’ their investigation?”
The Secret Barrister, an anonymous lawyer and author of a best-selling book, added: “I am a criminal lawyer, and I too must be missing something, because there is no reason I can see as to why an independent police criminal investigation would in any way be influenced by, or would seek to influence, a civil service report.”
It is unclear why the police has changed its mind but there will inevitably be suspicions of meddling at the highest level.
When Tony Blair was under investigation over cash for honours, senior civil servants and aides made it clear to the police back in 2006 and 2007, that should the sitting prime minister be interviewed under caution, it would force his resignation. After some deliberation, detectives agreed to interview Mr Blair as a witness.
Nobody was ever charged.
The offences surrounding partygate are less serious but more emotively charged and probably more damaging for Boris Johnson.
The criminal investigation is much simpler too but could nevertheless drag on for an age, given the number of alleged parties being investigated and the large number of individuals involved including senior civil servants and advisers.
On Tuesday, sources within Scotland Yard appeared genuinely taken aback at any suggestion that the much awaited report would now not see the light of day until the conclusion of their investigation.
“We have not said they cannot publish their report,” insisted one senior Met source at the start of the week.
But the Met conceded there were parts of the Gray report that would be better kept out of the public domain while detectives were going about their work.
What was certainly not suggested by the Met however was the idea that all reference to the events under investigation should be left out.
“It would seem prudent that some information is left out and discussions are ongoing,” was the relatively relaxed response.
By Wednesday afternoon with rumours swirling that the report could be about to be released, the Met’s position remained seemingly unmoved.
There was no sense of panic within the Yard that information was about to be made public that would scupper its criminal probe.
But late on Thursday night that position appeared to have altered. By Friday it had made public its official position. The statement has stirred a hornet’s nest with cries of cover up.
“The Sue Gray report must be published in full and undoctored without further delay,” said SNP Westminster Leader Ian Blackford.
“This UK Government farce has gone on long enough. People are understandably concerned that this increasingly looks like a cover up.”