Haunted. Ashen. Defeated. That’s how the PM looked in parliament this afternoon as he faced the flamethrowers of the opposition.
He began with a long apology about the May 2020 party in Downing Street which he said he had attended. And he openly acknowledged the ‘rage’ of the British public. His excuse – embarrassingly flimsy – was that he’d misunderstood the character of the get-together. And he was forced to adopt the lawyerly terms he so decries in others when he referred to the party as ‘the event in question’. So what was it? A wine-tasting? A discreet sherry at sundown? Or a major session with dancing on the tables?
That judgment will be made by Sue Gray, a Cabinet Office official appointed to investigate. Boris told every MP who called for his resignation to wait until Gray delivers her findings.
Sir Keir Starmer was brutally effective. ‘He thinks he can just ride this out?’ he said, his eyes widening like saucers in disbelief.
‘The British public know he’s lying through his teeth.’
But hang on. ‘He’s lying’. You can’t say that in parliament. The Speaker ruled the phrase acceptable because it was a reference to an opinion held by the electorate. Boris tried to exploit this technical nicety and accuse Sir Keir of unparliamentary tactics.
‘It’s up to the Rt. Hon. gentleman to choose how he conducts himself in this place,’ said Boris.
Oh dear. Howls of scorn greeted that little dig. The House seemed completely out of his control for once. He’d picked the wrong moment to accuse others of deploying sophistries to gain an advantage. A storm of contempt rained down on him from every opposition MP and he hunkered down on the front bench like a lonely sandbag holding back a sea of hate. His cabinet were masked so it wasn’t possible to count how many were smirking. All of them, probably.
And yet it could have been worse. His backbenchers held the line. Loyalists threw him soft questions about bus schemes, business parks and freeports. Peter Bone asked him to support a private members bill to the scrap the TV licence.
Ian Blackford, of the SNP, called for the PM’s resignation last week so his attack lacked surprise. He ranted and raged in his usual vinegary fashion.
‘The public suffered pain and anguish,’ he said, ‘and all the while the PM was drinking and laughing behind the walls of his private garden.’ He demanded that the PM must quit or, failing that, be removed by his own backbenchers. Blackford didn’t explain why Tory MPs would obey the SNP and ignore their whips.
Elements in this saga still favour Boris. By placing his destiny so firmly in the hands of a civil servant he’s taking a gamble that may prove wise. The wonks of Whitehall are risk-averse souls who lack any instinct, never mind any training, for the task of toppling the governor they serve.
And Ms Gray is a shrewd choice of sleuth. She doesn’t look like an attention-seeker, and she must know that if her verdict were to kill Boris’s career she would become a worldwide celebrity overnight. The chances are that Whitehall will deliver a whitewash. And there isn’t a single voter who considered Boris an honourable and truthful politician before this scandal broke. So the anger is coming from people who were already gold-medalists in the Outrage Olympics.
Bozza’s booze-up looks horrendous but it’s survivable.