This afternoon's urgent question on allegations of Tory sleaze could have been a rather explosive affair. Instead, it was used by members of all parties to produce a series of rather rubbish slogans for the local and devolved assembly elections next month. The Conservatives wanted to deflect attention from their problems by complaining about a series of things: that the other parties were bad too, that voters didn't care about this stuff anyway, and that the government was being criticised for trying too hard in the pandemic. Labour and the SNP wanted to nail the Tories and produce similar clips for their campaigns, and the Lib Dems had a number of targets, including the SNP.
Michael Gove had turned up to answer SNP MP Alison Thewliss's question by assuring everyone that the government was doing the right thing, that a new independent adviser on ministerial interests would shortly be appointed, that the Prime Minister had paid for the refurbishment of his flat out of his own pocket, and that procurement of PPE and the ventilator challenge had necessarily been fast in order to make sure the country's hospitals were as well-supplied as possible. In his special reasonable tone, he even pointedly conceded that mistakes had been made by the government in its handling of the pandemic and that it was important that lessons be learned through an independent inquiry in due course. He was supported by a chorus of backbench Tory MPs who were so keen to show that they didn't think this was an important issue to their constituents that they'd turned out in force to say so repeatedly in the chamber and over Zoom.
So busy was everyone trying to make their own special election-ready point that it took a while before Gove really had to side-step a denial of the most incendiary line briefed to the newspapers so far. He was eventually asked directly by the SNP's Stephen Flynn about the Daily Mail's front page story claiming the Prime Minister said there shouldn't be a third lockdown and that he was prepared to 'let the bodies pile high in their thousands':
“I was in the meeting that afternoon with the Prime Minister and other ministers as we looked at what was happening with the virus, with the pandemic... The Prime Minister made a decision in that meeting to trigger a second lockdown, he made a subsequent decision to trigger a third lockdown. This is a prime minister who was in a hospital himself in intensive care. The idea that you would say any such thing, I find incredible. I was in that room, I never heard language of that kind.
This is a very careful non-denial. Gove might find it incredible that someone said this, but that doesn't mean they didn't. He might not have heard it himself, but that doesn't mean it wasn't said. It is in marked contrast to the denial Johnson himself gave that he made the remark at all. And it means that this story has a while longer to run.