Cabinet Secretary Simon Case will no longer lead an investigation into several alleged Covid lockdown-breaking Christmas parties held in Whitehall last year, following accusations that his department's office held its own gathering.
And it was confirmed the scope could be widened to other alleged parties if Mr Case thought it necessary.
However following reports that two parties were held in the Cabinet Office in December 2020, a No 10 spokesperson said: “To ensure the ongoing investigation retains public confidence the Cabinet Secretary has recused himself for the remainder of the process.
“The work will be concluded by Sue Gray, second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
“She will ascertain the facts and present her findings to the Prime Minister.”
ITV News Political Correspondent Anushka Asthana on the "formidable" civil servant who is replacing Simon Case to lead the investigation into alleged lockdown-breaking parties
A source confirmed to ITV News that a partially virtual quiz took place in Mr Case's department's office on December 17, with six people who were in the office that day, taking part in person in a socially distanced manner. Most attendees dialled in remotely from home.
However, the source said Mr Case did not actively take part but acknowledged staff. The source added he knew the gathering was happening as he had to walk past the group in order to get to his private office.
The Cabinet Office later confirmed these reports in a statement on Friday evening, with a spokesperson telling ITV News: “Staff in the Cabinet Secretary’s private office took part in a virtual quiz on December 17 2020.
“A small number of them, who had been working in the office throughout the pandemic and on duty that day, took part from their desks, while the rest of the team were virtual.
“The Cabinet Secretary played no part in the event, but walked through the team’s office on the way to his own office. No outside guests or other staff were invited or present.
“This lasted for an hour and drinks and snacks were bought by those attending. He also spoke briefly to staff in the office before leaving.”
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At the time, London was under tough Tier 3 Covid restrictions, under which the law stated: “No person may participate in a gathering in the Tier 3 area which consists of two or more people, and takes place in any indoor space.”
According to Guido Fawkes, a second event in Mr Case's department saw staff drinking together in the office before heading out elsewhere in December.
Who is the new No 10 Christmas party inquiry lead, Sue Gray?
Ms Gray was director-general of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office from 2012 to 2018, and is seen as a Whitehall heavy hitter who would not pull any punches in an inquiry.
Ms Gray oversaw the Plebgate inquiry in 2012 after former chief whip Andrew Mitchell was accused of calling a policeman a “pleb” at the Downing Street gates, and was described as “deputy God” by then Labour MP, Paul Flynn, in a meeting of Parliament’s Public Administration Committee the same year.
Former Tory MP and Cabinet office minister Oliver Letwin is reported to have once said of Ms Gray: “It took me precisely two years before I realised who it is that runs Britain.
"Our great United Kingdom is actually entirely run by a lady called Sue Gray, the head of ethics or something in the Cabinet Office.
"Unless she agrees, things just don’t happen.”
She was once described by BBC Newsnight’s then policy editor as “the most powerful person you’ve never heard of”.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said Ms Gray has the “incredible responsibility” on her shoulders of restoring public trust.
Ms Rayner said: “I do believe that the investigation that Sue Gray is going to be leading up, there’s the evidence there, they need to carry that investigation out very swiftly to restore the public trust and then hand over that evidence to the police because nobody’s above the law.”
It had previously been questioned whether Mr Case was the right person to lead an inquiry, after the prime minister would not confirm or deny whether he attended an alleged No 10 party on December 18. The prime minister put Mr Case up for the job and was forced to apologise after ITV News released a video showing some of his senior advisers laughing about the alleged Christmas party in Downing Street.
Mr Johnson later confirmed the investigation would also look into a Downing Street quiz on December 15 - after a picture emerged of the PM allegedly hosting it - along with an alleged festive drinks party that is accused of breaking Covid rules on December 10 at the Department for Education.
The Department for Transport also admitted a “socially distanced gathering in the large open-plan office” was held on December 16.
And Tory London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey apologised “unreservedly” and stood down from his role as chair of the London Assembly's policing body for attending a gathering at Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ), organised by staff on his campaign team on December 14, when London was in Tier 2 and indoor mixing between households was banned.
Labour's deputy leader said she was “incredibly disappointed” in Mr Case.
Ms Rayner said: “I wrote to him and obviously had asked for this investigation and the fact that he didn’t come right away and say ‘actually, I can’t do that investigation because of the implications of my actions’ I find disappointing."
She earlier had said: “With each revelation, there is more evidence of a culture of turning a blind eye to the rules.
"Labour made it clear the person leading the investigation should be uncompromised, free to make an independent judgement."