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Is the Cabinet Office Inquiry Team Where Government Sends Difficult Issues To Disappear?

Is the Cabinet Office Inquiry Team Where Government Sends Difficult Issues To Disappear?

The Cabinet Office has begun a number of internal inquiries in recent months but does not comment on them (Alamy)

5 min read

The current investigation by Sue Gray into Downing Street parties is the latest in an increasing number of thorny issues sent to the Cabinet Office’s inscrutable inquiries team, where difficult questions are sent, and many are still to be answered.

Downing Street regularly orders the civil service to look into leaks of sensitive information, but the results of any inquiry are rarely, if ever, published. 

In 2016 the then-Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood ordered an investigation into how a memo warning colleagues not to leak government secrets was itself leaked to a newspaper.

The same year a list of David Cameron's resignation honours found its way into the press before it was due to be published, and another investigation was ordered.

Six years later, we are yet to discover the culprit in either matter.

We also shouldn’t hold out much hope of ever discovering the identity of the so-called “chatty rat”, according to Alex Thomas from the Institute for Government.

In October 2020 a number of media outlets reported that a second national coronavirus lockdown was about to be imposed before it was announced to the public.

A leak inquiry was swiftly launched, and has come to be known as the “chatty rat” investigation after a nickname given to the leaker by a Number 10 insider.

Although the finger was pointed at various senior figures including then-senior Downing Street aide Dominic Cummings, six months after the inquiry began, the Cabinet Secretary Simon Case admitted to MPs those responsible may never be found.

To the list of outstanding Cabinet Office inquiries can be added one set up two and a half years ago in July 2019 to investigate the source of a leak speculating about Jeremy Corbyn’s health.

In February 2020 Priti Patel asked Helen MacNamara, then-director of propriety and ethics at the Cabinet Office, to establish who was briefing against her in the Home Office after a series of damaging stories.

Last April an internal investigation into the leak of Johnson’s text messages with billionaire businessman James Dyson was announced, and in September the Cabinet Office reportedly began looking into how official plans for dealing with the Queen’s death, known by the codename London Bridge, were published by the Politico website.

That same month Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith announced an “assessment of the role of the Clearing House” in her department, which vets “sensitive” Freedom of Information requests from journalists and others, after an investigation by openDemocracy.

The findings of none of these have been made public.

Just this week an inquiry was launched into claims the Tory MP Nus Ghani was sacked as a minister due to her “Muslimness”, but there is no indication of when it will report. 

The Cabinet Office does not comment on internal investigations, so it is effectively impossible to know how many are ongoing.

The department would not confirm any detail about what investigations are being conducted now, including the number of investigations, whether those known about are complete or more work is ongoing, or if action has been taken as a result of them.

Thomas, a former veteran of the Cabinet Office himself who was principal private secretary to Heywood, said many, if not the majority, of such pieces of work are not meant to end with the public finding out the result.

“Nine times out of ten, leak inquiries don't uncover anything anyway,” he told PoliticsHome.

“They are set up because of anger and frustration at the time of a leak happening and then not a lot comes of it.”

He said the “value is in the process of reminding everybody that there are consequences to to releasing documents that are classified”, rather than revealing to the public how sensitive information got out.

A former special advisor described them as a “pit into which you deposit your problems”, and then “you cross your fingers and hope” that it doesn’t lead anywhere.

The government is often accused of using the announcement of a probe as an exercise in burying a story, so ministers and other other representatives can deflect difficult questions with the magic stock phase “there is an inquiry ongoing into this matter and we must wait for the findings before commenting further”.

It has long been the case. A famous scene in the 1970s political TV show “Yes, Minister” sees the lead character Jim Hacker declare “that’s what leak inquiries are for, setting up, you never actually conduct them”.

There were accusations the decision to set the Cabinet Office the task of finding out what really happened with the alleged gatherings held in Downing Street while the rest of the country was in lockdown would therefore lead to a “whitewash”.

But any doubt was eclipsed by the appointment of feared government troubleshooter Sue Gray to lead the parties inquiry, and she has form for delivering a damning report.

Her 2017 investigation into the former deputy prime minister Damian Green was so conclusive of wrongdoing Theresa May was forced to sack one of her closes political allies from the Cabinet.

However, Thomas said, as we wait for Gray’s report to arrive we should not over-estimate what she can conclude, given the terms of reference as outlined, adding we can “fetishise these inquiries”.

“There is often a fair bit of confusion over exactly what sort of inquiry is being pursued,” he said, pointing to the difference between a fully-indepdngent judge-led inquiry, like the upcoming one into the Covid-19 response, and what is effectively an internal HR matter.

“It means that sometimes I think people put more emphasis or onus, whether it's journalists, or government ministers or spokespeople, on an inquiry than they should.”

In the end, Thomas concludes, the “future of the Prime Minister is not Sue Gray's to determine”.

“You can get so deep into these processes but it helps to step back and say this is actually a judgement for Conservative MPs about who they want to be their leader and therefore the Prime Minister, rather than the minutiae of an inquiry,” he added.

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