Downing Street has admitted it did request a controversial meeting between Boris Johnson and Sue Gray ahead of the publication of her partygate inquiry despite initial denials.
Treasury minister Simon Clarke had insisted on Monday that it was the senior civil servant who “instigated” the meeting in the weeks leading up to her widely anticipated report into lockdown breaches in Downing Street.
But hours later Downing Street admitted it was “No 10 officials” who had requested the meeting earlier this month so that the Prime Minister could discuss the “timings and publication process”.
No 10 also insisted Mr Johnson did not support allegations attributed to his allies that Ms Gray had been “playing politics” ahead of the publication of her report, which is expected this week.
Mr Johnson refused to comment on the details of the meeting during a visit to a school in south-east London, but said “of course” Ms Gray remained independent.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer warned of the Government hitting a “new low” with attempts to “undermine” Ms Gray and her report.
The Liberal Democrats will try to pressure ministers to publish details of the meeting with a “humble address” motion in Parliament, as they raised fears of a “Downing Street stitch-up”.
Mr Clarke, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, repeatedly insisted during a broadcast round on Monday morning that the “meeting was held at the instigation of Ms Gray”.
But a different account emerged during a briefing of journalists in Westminster hours later.
“This was not at the request of the Prime Minister,” Mr Johnson’s official spokesman said.
“It wasn’t framed in that way. It was suggested it may be helpful to have that meeting.”
But asked which side made the suggestion, the spokesman conceded: “No 10 officials.”
Downing Street said the meeting that took place near the start of the month was arranged as it appeared the Metropolitan Police investigation into lockdown breaches was drawing to a conclusion.
“It is understandable that there would be a need to share information on things like timings and publication process because obviously there is a process for No 10 and the Prime Minister that would flow off the back of Sue Gray completing her report,” the spokesman said.
He sought to downplay the confusion triggered by Mr Clarke, saying that the “technical request” for the meeting had come from Ms Gray’s office after the suggestion from No 10.
Downing Street said minutes of the meeting have been recorded but would not be released because “it was a private meeting”.
Ms Gray has also been the subject of hostile briefing claiming that she has been “playing politics” and is “enjoying the limelight a little too much”.
Mr Johnson’s spokesman denied he agreed with the allegations attributed to his allies, saying Ms Gray is an “experienced civil servant” carrying out an “independent” investigation.
The spokesman could not say how many meetings the pair had shared, but said they had met previously around when Ms Gray completed her interim report earlier this year.
Mr Johnson rebuffed questions from broadcasters during the school visit, saying “it can’t be long now” until the inquiry is published.
“You are just going to have to hold your horses a little bit longer,” the Prime Minister said.
Sir Keir called for Ms Gray’s report into what he called “industrial-scale law-breaking” to be published in full as soon as possible.
He told journalists during a visit to a London Sainsbury’s: “I always had a concern that as we got to the publication of the Sue Gray report, there will be attempts by the Government to undermine her and undermine the report.
“That’s what we’ve seen going on over the weekend in recent days – a new low for the Government.”
Lib Dem chief whip Wendy Chamberlain said: “The public would be rightly angry if it turns out Boris Johnson put pressure on Sue Gray to water down her report into illegal Downing Street parties.”
The Gray report will follow the Metropolitan Police inquiry into rule-breaching events in Downing Street and Whitehall during coronavirus restrictions.
A total of 83 people were fined for events spanning eight separate days, including the Prime Minister, wife Carrie Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
They all received one fixed penalty notice for an event for Mr Johnson’s 56th birthday in June 2020, when indoor mixing was banned.
Despite not being fined, reports suggest that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case will come in for severe criticism in the Gray report and could face heavy pressure to resign.
Meanwhile, Tory MP Laura Farris suggested she may resign as a ministerial aide at the Foreign Office in order to continue in her role on the Commons Privileges Committee, which is set to investigate whether Mr Johnson intentionally misled Parliament over partygate.
Ms Farris, who is currently both a parliamentary private secretary (PPS) and a member of the committee, told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour programme the two roles were “incompatible” in the circumstances, and “that has to be resolved this week”.
“One or other will go. If I am to remain on the committee, I will resign as a PPS so that there isn’t that conflict,” she said.