Big Dog is in the picture again

Scotland Yard is on the case of the beast of Bullingdon


In itself, the picture wasn’t terrible. It wasn’t great, obviously. The bottle of fizz, the crisps torn open for sharing, the aide draped in tinsel, the prime minister apparently getting dressed while Margaret Thatcher stared balefully over his shoulder. But it was explainable. Boris Johnson was just putting a tie on, not pulling on his trousers. It was only the one bottle, unless they’d also been drinking the hand sanitiser. 

He looked especially dishevelled, as though his staff had dragged him through a hedge specially before he came in

The problem was that, with exquisite timing, the Mirror had published its photo of a Number 10 lockdown Christmas Party halfway through PMQs. The first that Johnson knew about it was when Labour’s Fabian Hamilton asked about it. Behind the prime minister, Tory MPs pulled out their phones. But the chamber of the House of Commons, with its thick stone walls, has a notoriously poor phone signal, and the WiFi can’t cope with six hundred people trying to access the internet at the same time. So all anyone had was blank screens.

Johnson couldn’t look in any case. What he knew about the photo was what Hamilton had told him, that it showed him “surrounded by alcohol, food and people wearing tinsel”. Only the prime minister, Sue Gray, and a dedicated team of police officers know how many such images there are out there. Was this one of the defensible ones, or one of the ones with the pig’s head, the strippers  and the mountain of cocaine? 

Things had been going well up to that point. Johnson had arrived pumping his fist, bouncing on his toes like a prize fighter, or possibly a toddler needing the loo. He looked especially dishevelled, as though his staff had dragged him through a hedge specially before he came in. He had opened by announcing that he would, after half-term, declare victory in the War on Covid.  Operation Save Big Dog in action.

Big Dog did seem a bit short of friends. Rishi Sunak had arrived in good time, but opted to sit halfway down the front bench, well out of shot of the cameras. As political signalling goes, it wasn’t subtle. Jacob Rees-Mogg was at the far end, contemplating the opportunities of Brexit. That left the prime minister flanked by Dominic Raab and Steve Barclay, who were somehow looking especially generic, as though they’d stepped straight from the pages of a Next catalogue. 

Keir Starmer had started by asking about fraud. “This government and this country despise those who defraud people,” Johnson said, to general amusement. He didn’t seem to have any pieces of paper in his voluminous binder about fraud, so he answered questions about “neighbourhood crimes” instead. These went down, it turns out, in the recent period when everyone had to stay at home. Starmer pointed this out. “Two crimes that people could commit were online fraud and throwing parties,” he said. “So far as I can see, the numbers for both have gone through the roof.” 

Starmer moved on to energy bills, suggesting that Johnson wasn’t across the details of his own plans. “I was always worried that the prime minister wasn’t one for reading terms and conditions,” the Labour leader said, giving a frightening insight into what passes for an entertaining evening in the Starmer household. 

Big Dog isn’t out of the woods yet

It was a low-wattage exchange. The highlight was probably Lindsay Hoyle shouting at Kwasi Kwarteng for heckling. Between Johnson, Kwarteng and Rees-Mogg, the Tory front bench is a strong warning of the kind of chancers your child will meet if you send them to Eton. But the prime minister probably felt he was clear of danger until Hamilton asked about the photo. 

Suddenly it was as though the wind had gone out of his sails. Hamilton was “completely in error”, he said, but that’s his standard denial. What was the photo? What did it show? Like the man in the Arthur Conan Doyle tale who receives a telegram reading “All is discovered! Fly at once!”, he was considering dark secrets the rest of us can only guess at.

Ruth Jones asked about the mob outside parliament who had harassed Starmer. They were “thugs and yobs,” the prime minister replied, without explaining why, if they were so bad, he’d decided to make one of their slogans his own. 

Natalie Elphicke asked why Dover was “beset by miles of traffic jams”. In his seat, Rees-Mogg lifted his pen over his order paper, possibly considering whether roadside toilet cubicles might be one of the opportunities of Brexit.

Finally, Labour’s Gerald Jones asked again about the photo. Why weren’t the police investigating this party as well, he asked. By now Johnson, presumably filled in on details, had an answer: “It already has been. That event has already been submitted for investigation.” He hustled out of the chamber, slapped on the back by Cabinet colleagues.

Over at Scotland Yard, the Lockdown Crimes (Downing Street) Squad opened a fresh file. Big Dog isn’t out of the woods yet.

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