The chamber was packed. We’d wondered if Tory MPs would stay away, but there they were. Solidarity with their leader, or there to do damage assessment? Not all of them were present, of course. In a show of support, Rishi Sunak had gone to Devon. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, with the resources of the military at his disposal, was in Finland.
We had been told Boris Johnson was going to make some sort of statement. What would it be? The Pizza Express in Woking was presumably closed in May 2020, but perhaps he would reveal that a traumatic incident on a zip-wire years earlier had left him medically unable to hold a glass of champagne.
He walked in to jeers, and shouts of “resign”. And then things really went downhill.
He had apparently woken with no memory and was only now piecing together how he got there
“I want to apologise,” he began. People felt “rage”, he said. MPs on both sides were listening in silence. He went on. “Although I cannot anticipate the conclusions of the current inquiry, I have learned enough to know that there are things we simply did not get right.”
At the entrance, Tory MPs stood with their arms crossed defensively. David Davis stared skyward. It was clear where the prime minister was going. While admitting that some things had gone wrong, he was going to claim that only in recent days had he understood this.
He was also, marvellously, going to claim this about things he had himself done. Like the hero of the new BBC series The Tourist, he had apparently woken with no memory in the middle of a wreckage and was only now piecing together how he got there.
There were so many mysteries. Why was everyone around him scrambling through their phones to delete photographs? Why did he keep having visions of a woman called Sue, and would she really be able to answer all his questions about his past? Who was the mysterious “Dom”, pursuing him obsessively for revenge, and why did he always seem to be talking to himself?
“I must take responsibility,” he said, and immediately set about avoiding it. “Number 10 is a big department, with the garden as an extension of the office.” Dominic Raab nodded supportively. Liz Truss stared intently at a spot about a foot in front of her. “When I went into that garden just after six on 20 May 2020, to thank groups of staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later to continue working, I believed implicitly that this was a work event.”
And there we had it. The defence was in. He’d tried denying that there were parties, he’d tried denying that he’d known about them, and now, finally, he’d admitted being at one, but he hadn’t realised what it was. The “implicit” line was interesting, suggesting that his very presence meant it had been a work event. When the prime minister does it, as Richard Nixon almost said, it’s not partying.
Opposite him, the Labour front bench simply shook their heads and laughed. Next to him Truss was very still indeed.
“With hindsight, I should have sent everyone back inside,” he continued, slyly passing the blame to junior officials. “And I should have recognised that even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance” — although if there was a piece of guidance that “technically” allowed 40 people to mingle over drinks and nibbles in May 2020, this is something that escaped the rest of us — “there would be millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way.”
Replying, Keir Starmer took his time. “There we have it,” he began. “After months of deceit and deception, the pathetic spectacle of a man who’s run out of road.” Johnson did indeed look beaten already, and the questions had only just begun. The Labour leader went for the nuclear option. “Will he now do the decent thing and resign?”
In other circumstances, Tory MPs might have gone wild at that. They didn’t. Johnson might have been scornful. He wasn’t. “I appreciate the point that he’s making about the event that I attended,” he said. “I want to repeat that I thought it was a work event.” It didn’t sound any better the second time. His frontbenchers looked glum.
Labour MPs laughed at the idea that Johnson is in a position to judge anyone else’s behaviour
Again and again Starmer went in, reminding him of the people who had suffered alone, died alone, mourned alone, on the instructions of the prime minister, while that same prime minister and his staff had made the most of the lovely weather over a cold glass of wine, and perhaps a little cheese. Again and again Johnson pleaded with him — and it really was pleading — to wait for Sue Gray’s report. Starmer took him through the various denials he has offered over recent weeks. “Can’t the prime minister see why the British public think he’s lying through his teeth?”
That, at last, generated some Tory protest, though not much. MPs are not supposed to accuse each other of lying, a rule from which Johnson has benefitted more than most. The Speaker let it go. “It was what the public think,” Lindsay Hoyle told the Conservative benches. Given that many of Johnson’s evasions have come in Parliament, it may well be what Hoyle thinks, too. It’s hard to imagine he’d usually have allowed the question.
Johnson affected to take the high road. “It’s up to the right honourable gentleman to choose how he conducts himself,” he said, and then the Labour benches finally lost it, laughing their heads off at the idea that Johnson is in a position to judge anyone else’s behaviour.
But what was striking was how silent the Tory benches were through this. Even when Starmer again asked the prime minister if he’d resign, they just sat there. Perhaps they were thinking about the line with which Johnson had finished his statement: “All I ask is that Sue Gray be allowed to complete her inquiry into that day — and several others.” Those three words were a warning. There is more of this to come.
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