Boris Johnson has just made his leadership crisis worse at PMQs. As expected, he started the session with an apology to the public, saying 'I know the rage they feel with me and with the government I lead'. This sounded promising, but things quickly went downhill, and that was before the questions had even started. Johnson then said 'there are things we simply did not get right', claiming that when he attended the party on 20 May 2020, he 'believed implicitly that this was a work event' and that he should have sent everyone back inside. He even made reference to the possibility that 'it could be said to fall technically within the guidelines' even as he accepted that the 'work event' was the wrong thing to have done.
His defence then deteriorated under surgical questioning from Sir Keir Starmer. The Prime Minister was leaning heavily on two things: his apparently firm belief that a gathering in the garden to which staff had been told to bring their own drinks was a 'work event' and the fact that Sue Gray is still conducting her inquiry into the partying. The latter shows the desperation of the Prime Minister: Gray is not someone who can be nobbled, so to lean on her suggests Johnson is just hoping he can delay things rather than that he is going to get away with it once again.
Starmer told the Commons that the statement showed 'the pathetic spectacle of a man who has run out of road'. He called on Johnson to resign, which prompted the ludicrous spectacle of the Prime Minister repeatedly lecturing Starmer on how he should behave. Opposition MPs had been angrily shouting 'resign!' but perhaps more damning than that was that they ended up laughing at the Prime Minister too.
It was striking how little of himself Starmer brought into his six questions. Previously he has referred to his time in the courts while mocking the defences offered by the Prime Minister. He could have done so today as the Labour leader will no doubt have heard more plausible explanations from drunks defending themselves in the magistrates' courts. But the person who loomed largest in his questions was a woman named Hannah whose father died at the same time as this partying was taking place. He also referred to the moving testimony of the DUP's Jim Shannon, who wept in the Commons on Tuesday as he spoke of his mother-in-law dying alone. Johnson offered his condolences and said that no one could have failed to be moved by Shannon's tearful speech — but his words seemed dissociated from what he was having to talk about. Indeed, much of his language suggested he had been present but not actually involved in what was going on in his own building: he later said he wished 'things had been done differently', as though someone else was Prime Minister, not him.
The Tory benches behind him were more stationary than the Downing Street wallpaper. Indeed, I suspect many Conservative backbenchers were glad they had donned their facemask before entering the chamber because it at least allowed them to hide. Chancellor Rishi Sunak had clearly decided to hide somewhere else for this session.
Perhaps Johnson will be relieved that no one from his own side asked a hostile question, although this is rather like asking Mrs Lincoln whether she had enjoyed the play. The Conservatives who were called offered a bizarre panoply of constituency facts including the motto of Rutland and the manufacturing heritage of Eastleigh. He thanked each Conservative who stood up for their question, but Johnson should know that the mood in the party is now even worse following that session. One of his backbenchers who is by no means a regular critic of the Prime Minister sent me a picture of a gravestone to express how he felt about the session. But as with the PM's passive language about party decisions during lockdown, it is clear he will be passive in his own demise: he will not resign but be removed if he goes.