There’s no party like a Sue Gray-compliant party

If you can remember May 2020, you were there and you are lying

“Everyone wants to know, I want to know, exactly what did or didn’t happen.” Edward Argar was into his second hour defending Boris Johnson’s parties. It was going about as well as could have been hoped. It was not yet half past eight, but he already sounded done in. His day had started with a monstering from Sky’s Kay Burley. He’d tried to talk the interview out but it became clear that she was willing to let it run on for ever, so in the end he had to just keep repeating the mantra: wait for Sue Gray.

Readers may not be familiar with Sue Gray, and we can assume she likes it that way. Although Argar repeatedly described her as “independent”, she is a civil servant in the Cabinet Office, where her reputation is as the fixer’s fixer, the operator standing behind the behind-the-scenes operator. The key fact to remember about her investigation into Boris Johnson is that Boris Johnson appointed her.

Anyone looking for Boris would have been well-advised to start in the Downing Street fridges

Still, while Gray considers whether the Downing Street garden might be exempt from the law due to it being a royal palace, or a cathedral, or part of the International Space Station, the prime minister is running out of friends. The extent to which that was the case became clear when Parliament assembled to discuss the latest evidence that for people who worked in Number 10, the last couple of years have been less “lockdown” and more “lock-in”.

Obviously Johnson couldn’t be expected to defend himself. His absence wasn’t explained, but anyone looking for him would have been well-advised to start in the Downing Street fridges. Neither was Argar available. After two hours of explaining that it would be entirely inappropriate for the prime minister to simply tell us whether he had attended any parties, he was presumably off somewhere in a darkened room with a wet cloth on his face. 

So we got the Paymaster General, Michael Ellis. In front of him, the opposition benches were full. Behind him, not so much. Conservative MPs scurried for cover as he began to speak. After months expressing doubts about the value of Covid rules, they had all realised the urgency of putting some social distance between themselves and the prime minister. 

While Argar had gone for the dogged “Don’t ask me, I just work here” approach to the morning broadcast round, Ellis’s took a more high-handed approach to Parliament. His opening gambit was, in essence, how bloody dare MPs ask questions. “Both the prime minister and I came before the House in December to set out the details of the investigation,” he began, as if that should really have been an end to the matter. It was a speech so bad that opposition MPs applauded ironically. His repeated use of “the prime minister and I” suggested that a hope he might associate himself with the glory of that great office. Well, something rubbed off on him, but it wasn’t glory. Angela Rayner asked if he believed Johnson “to be a man of honour and integrity”. “I do,” he replied, to mocking laughter.

The session would last well over an hour, but only six Tory MPs even asked questions, and only three were supportive. Desmond Swayne seemed to suggest that Johnson breaking the rules proved the rules were worthless. Suzanne Webb accused Labour of wasting Parliament’s time asking about Johnson’s presence as parties, although he could save everyone a lot of time with a one-word answer. 

Then there was Sir Christopher Chope. “Why cannot all the dirty linen be washed at once?” he pleaded. “Why are we getting this drip-feed of parties?” I hesitate to suggest that Sir Christopher is less than familiar with the operation of the Chope household’s washing machine, but at some point it will dawn on him that with Johnson, there’s far too much for one load. 

Parties are turning out to be much more than a Westminster bubbly story

Pretty much from then on it was just opposition MPs and Ellis. The Tory MPs who were in the chamber stared at their phones as if doing so would disinfect the tweets and WhatsApp messages they were reading. Many in Labour were scornful, mocking Ellis’s refusal to say if he had even asked Johnson whether he was at the party. (The answer is surely of course not: even if Johnson had deigned to speak to Ellis, a good lawyer never asks the client if they’re guilty.)

The questions that hit hardest were from those recounting the loved ones who had given birth alone, or died alone, because Johnson had told them it was necessary, while his staff organised runs to the off-license. Afzal Khan described sitting in a hospital car park to be as close as he could get to his dying mother. Jim Shannon of the DUP wept as he talked about his mother-in-law’s death. It is these questions that make this issue more toxic for the government than anything parliament has dealt with in years, far worse than Brexit. Those lonely deaths were followed by sparsely attended funerals, grief shared over Zoom. 

Ellis started to wilt. He understood people’s pain, he insisted, and so did the prime minister. “He’s on the side of the people of this country!” he insisted. 

And they, according to Ellis, are on Johnson’s side, too. “The prime minister’s going nowhere,” he said. “The prime minister retains the confidence of the people of this country.” 

But it was far from clear he retained even the confidence of his MPs. Parties are turning out to be much more than a Westminster bubbly story.

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