The public would be forgiven for wondering if the saga known as partygate will ever end. Not only does the Prime Minister now face yet another inquiry – this time by the Commons Privileges Committee into whether he misled Parliament, after the Government was forced into a shambolic U-turn yesterday. But the decision by the Metropolitan Police not to issue any more updates on its own investigations before the May elections means that this whole farrago may now drag on even longer than it needs to.
So far, the Met has issued 50 fixed penalty notices in connection with illegal gatherings held in and around Downing Street. It says that it will continue its investigations during the pre-election period. But it appears that its reading of guidance from the National Police Chiefs’ Council – that “particular care must be taken in this period to avoid publicity that could, or reasonably be seen to, affect or influence the outcome of the election” – is that it should enter purdah, staying silent even as the political row over parties in Downing Street shows no sign of abating.
The decision has been branded extraordinary by some legal experts. They point out that the guidance also states that “delaying an announcement could itself influence the political outcome”. It must be asked whether the police would have acted the same way had the investigation they were conducting been into much more serious allegations of criminality. In its apparent attempt to avoid being political, the Metropolitan Police have made a decision that some will see as inherently partisan.
Moreover, the amount of time and attention that partygate is still consuming, months after the original allegations were made, is itself becoming a problem. Some voters will view the criticisms of the Prime Minister as disproportionate and sanctimonious, while others would like him to pay a political price for his behaviour. All will surely agree that this cannot continue to be a running sore in our politics, distracting the Government when the crises befalling the country continue to mount.
It is hard to see what purpose is served, in particular, by the latest Commons investigation. The Prime Minister has already been damaged by this affair and ultimately it is up to the public to deliver the final verdict on his conduct, including in the local elections next month. It would have been better if MPs had just moved on.