To look at the House of Commons this morning, you'd have thought Labour won the last election. The green benches on the government side were bereft of the usual Tory hordes, while the opposition was crammed with jeering Labour backbenchers. The reason? The Speaker Lindsay Hoyle had granted an Urgent Question on the subject of No. 10's parties in May 2020, following yesterday's revelations by ITV.
Boris Johnson was busy elsewhere so the call went out for the Paymaster-General. Poor Michael Ellis was sent out for the most thankless task since the Charge of the Light Brigade, armed only with his legal training in dodging, ducking, deflecting and evading difficult questions.
After a predictable tirade from Angela Rayner in full Elizabethan Gloriana mode, up came the bowling thick and fast in a performance more pitiful than England's efforts in the Ashes series. Angela Eagle posed probably the best question by suggesting if it would be quicker for Sue Gray to investigate those days when there weren't parties in Number 10, to laughter across the House.
Her sister Maria asked why any self-respecting minister would turn up to Parliament unprepared while Ben Bradshaw's pithy rejoinder – 'If the Prime Minister broke the law, he will resign, won't he?' – elicited only a stuttering response from Ellis. The Paymaster-General could only claim 'it is an entirely hypothetical position' and that 'the Prime Minister is going nowhere,' asserting that Johnson still retains the faith of the country, to jeers from the House.
Undoubtedly the most poignant moment was when DUP Member Jim Shannon – a frequent intervener in adjournment debates – spoke of his mother-in-law dying alone during the pandemic. Trying to raise a question about whether Covid regulations had been broken, Shannon was unable to finish his question and sat down, to unanimous sympathy across the House.
As the session wore on, the greatest hits got replayed again and again by Ellis: 'I'm not going to pre-suppose any findings... it's a matter for Sue Gray... that is a hypothetical question' as Labour MPs queued up to regale him with stories of suffering in lockdown.
Still, at least the Paymaster-General didn't give the most embarrassing (or sycophantic) display on the Tory benches of the day. That award goes to Suzanne Webb – an obvious a plant as you'd find in a Downing Street garden – who suggested to colleagues that their time could be better spent discussing how to 'Build back better.'
As Tennyson might have said: 'Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.'