LONDON — Fighting to save his job, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain on Thursday insisted that he was “absolutely not” delaying publication of a report into a career-threatening scandal over parties held in Downing Street during lockdown.
“I’m afraid you’ve got to let the independent inquiries go on,” said Mr. Johnson on a visit to Wales, where he posed for the media in a high visibility jacket and hard hat, explaining why the much anticipated report had not yet been released. When asked whether it would published in full he replied: “of course.”
Back in London, the content of the document that could force Mr. Johnson from power was on Thursday the subject of an unusual tussle, the outcome of which could determine the prime minister’s fate.
After being briefed on the findings of Sue Gray, a senior government official, into the swirl of allegations engulfing Downing Street, London’s Metropolitan Police on Tuesday launched its own investigation into possible lawbreaking in Mr. Johnson’s home and office.
And, while that was a blow to Mr. Johnson, it might also have thrown him an unlikely lifeline — even if it’s just temporary.
At the request of Downing Street, Ms. Gray is now removing from her document any material that police think could compromise their investigation into the more serious cases she uncovered that may have broken the law. Only once that is done will the report be handed to Mr. Johnson and then published.
“If Gray’s report does not include all the material the police consider serious, and the only material that is reported and published is relatively anodyne, then Boris Johnson will be able to say: ‘there is nothing here,’” said Hannah White, deputy director of the think tank Institute for Government, who once ran an official committee on standards.
“For the people who want this to end with Boris Johnson leaving, the potential of triggering that lies in the cumulative weight of evidence,” she said. “If it is separated out, and a load of material is removed, then it doesn’t feel as serious.”
The stakes are high for Mr. Johnson because many Conservative lawmakers are waiting for Ms. Gray’s document before deciding whether to press for a no-confidence motion against the prime minister.
He is accused of misleading Parliament — normally a resigning matter — about what he knew about the series of gatherings in Downing Street reported by the British media.
Having originally insisted that all the coronavirus rules were observed in Downing Street, Mr. Johnson admitted earlier this month that he attended one event in his garden in May 2020 during a strict lockdown, to which around 100 people were urged to “bring your own booze.” Mr. Johnson apologized but said he thought he was attending a work event.
More damaging allegations have emerged, including one of a birthday celebration for Mr. Johnson, and of a raucous party held in his absence by his staff on the eve of the funeral of Prince Philip. At that event a suitcase was used to wheel alcohol into Downing Street, a disco was set up in the Downing Street basement and the garden swing belonging to Mr. Johnson’s toddler son was broken by one reveler, according to media reports.
To secure a no-confidence motion, 54 Conservative lawmakers need to write to a senior colleague requesting one. Because the process is conducted in secret, it is unclear how many such letters have been submitted and only a handful of members of Parliament have so far said they have sent one.
For Mr. Johnson’s enemies there are complex calculations, too. If they trigger a no-confidence vote, Mr. Johnson would then have to win a simple majority in a ballot of all lawmakers from his Conservative Party to keep his job.
But surviving that would keep Mr. Johnson safe from challenge for another year unless the rules were changed. This week allies of the prime minister fought off a plan to reduce that period from a year to six months.
Some critics of the prime minister may think they have a better chance of evicting him if they wait for the outcome of the police investigation and to see how the Conservatives poll in local elections in May.
However the police could take months to complete their work, and there is no guarantee that the material removed from Ms. Gray’s report will ever be published. The Conservative Party has been hit hard by the party scandal in opinion polls, and Mr. Johnson’s own approval rating has plummeted, so some critics want to oust him quickly.
Understand Boris Johnson’s Recent Troubles
While Ms. Gray’s team and the Metropolitan Police haggle over what exactly goes into her report, Mr. Johnson has been working hard to shore up his support among his own lawmakers.
Loyalists have rallied around him and he has held meetings with wavering legislators. One senior minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, warned Mr. Johnson’s critics that getting rid of him could lead to a general election, a prospect seen as unlikely now, but one that could alarm some lawmakers given that the party is trailing in the opinion polls.
Support for the prime minister seems to have steadied somewhat but, even shorn of some of its most damning evidence, Ms. Gray’s report could still be damaging enough to prompt a serious effort to oust Mr. Johnson. If little information surfaces in the document, that could provoke suspicions that the findings have been suppressed.
Yet Mr. Johnson’s fate could depend on the complex negotiations now underway between a senior civil servant, Ms. Gray, and the Metropolitan Police.
“The fact that the police intervened at the moment they did might turn out to be quite fortuitous for Boris Johnson because it allows time for the anger to dissipate,” Ms. White said.