Nadhim Zahawi has said he does not know who arranged a secret meeting between Boris Johnson and partygate investigator Sue Gray.
In an excruciating interview on Sky News, the education secretary repeatedly dodged questions on who set up the talks.
News of the meeting emerged as Gray, who is a senior civil servant, prepares to finally publish her long-awaited report into lockdown-busting parties is Downing Street and Whitehall next week.
Downing Street initially suggested Gray had arranged the meeting, which took place last month, but that was denied by her officials.
Appearing on Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Zahawi was asked three times who had arranged the meeting, but each time failed to answer.
He said: “All I can say to you is the meeting that took place between Sue Gray and the Prime Minister – I can’t tell you who called the meeting.”
He later added: “I don’t know who called the meeting.”
Asked what was discussed, he also said: “I don’t know.”
Asked if he could not say who called the meeting because he did not ask No 10, or because it did not tell him, Mr Zahawi said: “(I’ll) tell you what the answer is, the answer is very simple.
“The answer is the Prime Minister will never intervene in Sue Gray’s investigation. The Prime Minister wants Sue Gray to basically go wherever the evidence takes her.”
Zahawi later clashed with the BBC’s Jo Coburn, accusing her of “throwing mud” over the meeting.
Coburn asked: “We now know that several weeks ago, the prime minister had a secret meeting with Sue Gray, the senior civil servant responsible for writing the report into the partygate scandal that could determine his political future.
“Who called that meeting?”
Zahawi hit back: “Hold on a second, you just called it a secret meeting — the prime minister meets his senior civil servants all the time.”
Zahawi repeatedly said he “did not know” why the meeting was held and added: “I don’t believe it is material to the outcome of the investigation … because the PM has always said that Sue Gray can take the report to wherever the evidence takes her.
“She is independent, the prime minister will never intervene with the investigation.”
Coburn replied: “You say he would never do that, but political influence is what people will be asking.”
Reports of the meeting come just days before Gray is due to release her full report into the partygate scandal that has rocked Downing Street.
Gray has already published an interim report in the scandal which blamed “failures of leadership and judgment” for the pandemic rule-breaking, but she was unable to publish a full report while the Metropolitan police investigation was ongoing.
That inquiry has now ended and a total of 126 fines were issued to 83 people, including Johnson and his wife, Carrie. He has been told he will face no further action.
Coburn said that the public “need to know” who called the meeting between the PM and Sue Gray and what happened.
But Zahawi said: “His diary has many meetings.
“You’re throwing mud at something which doesn’t exist.”
Following reports of the meeting, Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “Boris Johnson must urgently explain why he held a secret meeting with Sue Gray to discuss her report despite claiming her investigation was completely independent.
“Public confidence in the process is already depleted, and people deserve to know the truth.
“This is a prime minister incapable of taking responsibility for the rotten culture he has created in Downing Street or of doing the decent thing.
“The Sue Gray report must be published in full and with all accompanying evidence.”
Around 30 people, including Johnson, are now being contacted by the Cabinet Office to warn them of the contents of the Gray’s report before it is published next week.
They have until 5pm on Sunday to submit any objections.