Opinion

Jo Coburn interviews Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi on BBC1's Sunday morning

Alison Rowat: Tempers flare as Minister grilled over "secret" meeting
IT could all come down to the photos. That is the thinking as Westminster readies for the publication of Sue Gray’s report into Downing Street parties during lockdown.With fines issued and the police investigation concluded, the senior civil servant’s report might have less of an impact than if it had been released in full earlier this year when the pressure on the Prime Minister was intense.Yet as the Sunday politics programmes showed, the danger for Downing Street is not over. First is the question of which, if any photos, CCTV images and text messages will be published.As was seen with the leaking of a video showing Downing Street staff joking about parties, the image can be mightier than the pen. Then there are the details of the parties, one of which was said to have featured an altercation between two aides. Is Downing Street, the most fined workplace in the UK, going to look like National Lampoon’s Animal House?A more immediate headache for Downing Street arrived on Friday when it was revealed that the Prime Minister and Ms Gray had a meeting several weeks ago. Why? Who asked for a sit down? What was said? A field full of hares started running, which by Sunday morning had turned into a stampede. The unfortunate minister standing in its path was Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary.First to buttonhole him was Sophy Ridge, presenter of Sky News’ Ridge on Sunday. Mr Zahawi was keen to downplay the meeting as no big deal, just the everyday workings of Whitehall. Pressed again, Mr Zahawi said he did not know any details about the meeting, but he was certain that the Prime Minister had not intervened with an independent inquiry and never would.Ridge asked how he could be sure of that if he was not aware of what went on in the meeting. The Minister’s response was that Ms Gray was a person of integrity and not the type to pull her punches. It was an answer to a question, just not the one Ridge had asked.She tried again. Who called the meeting? If Mr Zahawi did not know why didn’t he ask Downing Street before coming on the programme? As Mr Zahawi struggled, other Ministers watching at home must have thought with relief, “There but for the grace of the press office go I.” Also watching was Jo Coburn, filling in for Sophie Raworth on BBC1’s Sunday Morning (Raworth was on Chelsea Flower Show duty).Ms Coburn, as regular viewers of Politics Live will attest, is in the same league as Ms Gray when it comes to rigorous scrutiny and not pulling punches. After several more “don’t knows” from the Minister on who called the meeting and what was said, she reminded him that he had already been asked these questions earlier that morning. Had he not called Downing Street in the meantime? “I don’t need to [call] because I don’t believe that having a meeting with your senior civil servant is material to the outcome,” said Mr Zahawi.“That civil servant is independent in their investigation and has the highest level of professionalism and integrity.“The Prime Minister has made it very clear that he has never intervened or will seek to intervene or interfere with the investigation.”Asked what was transparent about a meeting between the Prime Minister and Ms Gray, the person potentially responsible for deciding his political future, he accused Coburn of “throwing mud at something which doesn’t exist”.After two heated interviews in a row, Mr Zahawi looked as though he wanted to go back to bed and pretend Sunday morning had not happened.Despite his protests, the meeting mattered. If nothing else it supplied a new angle to the "secret meeting" story for the media and opposition parties to pursue.If it was any consolation for the Minister, at least he was not on BBC Scotland’s The Sunday Show being grilled over the cancellation of a third of ScotRail trains from Monday. Neither was Jenny Gilruth, the Minister for Transport. It fell instead to Richard Lochhead, the Employment Minister, to face a barrage of questions from presenter Martin Geissler.Fair play to Mr Lochhead. Though the item was about the cost of living crunch and the Scottish economy in general, Geissler was not going to pass up the chance to tackle a Minister on the rail chaos, and Mr Lochhead, live from Elgin, answered as best he could.Ms Gilruth owes her colleague lunch the next time their paths cross in the Scottish Parliament canteen. That is assuming they can get to Edinburgh, of course.

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