THE smell of burning toast is wafting across Whitehall.

Often in politics, the most profound sound is silence. Like the silence on the Tory benches when a humbled Boris was making his “heartfelt apology” and the silence from Cabinet colleagues in the initial aftermath. While they later rallied round, it took Chancellor Rishi Sunak eight hours before he offered his lukewarm support.

But hold on. Minutes after what one Tory MP dismissed as the PM’s “half-a**ed” apology before a packed House, Johnson was touring the Commons’ tearooms, saying he had done nothing wrong. “We’re taking hits for something we don’t deserve,” he is said to have told one colleague.

Yesterday, as Boris suffered a second day of dire headlines, he had the happy excuse to withdraw from a visit to a vaccination centre – a family member had apparently tested positive for Covid – and thereby avoided the barrage of unhelpful questions from those feral beasts of HM media. Number 10 suggested he won’t be seen in public for a week. How convenient.

Remarkably perhaps, it has taken 18 months for the truth to emerge about the May 2020 BYOB party in the Number 10 rose garden.

Just five days prior to this soiree, a photograph – supposedly taken from Treasury offices – showed the PM and staff with bottles of wine in the Downing Street garden. Quizzed, Johnson insisted: “Those people were at work talking about work.”

Johnson’s attitude seems reminiscent of the legalistic approach Bill Clinton took when he infamously told America he did “not have sexual relations with that woman”. It explains why the PM, having convinced himself of his blamelessness, believes he did not mislead Parliament and so did not break the ministerial code, the final arbiter of which is, of course, Boris Johnson.

The case for the defence is “technically” the PM did not break any of the lockdown’s legal regulations because the rule at the time was not to mix with more than one person “in a public place”. The Downing Street garden is not a public place.

At PMQs, Johnson delicately tip-toed his way through the political minefield, saying he “believed implicitly” the May 2020 gathering was a “work event” despite people drinking alcohol and eating nibbles.

Yet at the time, the whole thrust of the UK Government’s message was a ban on socialising in any form. The police tweeted to this effect.

Less than an hour before Boris slipped into the garden to thank staff, between sips, for all their hard work, Cabinet minister Oliver Dowden reiterated at a press conference inside Downing Street that people could only “meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor public place, provided you stay two metres apart”.

The case for the prosecution is that the spirit of the regulations was clear and being observed by millions of people, some of whose stories about not being able to say farewell to dying loved ones are harrowing, but not by Johnson. In the court of public opinion, the verdict is clear: he’s guilty.

The report by top Whitehall mandarin Sue Gray is due to land on, yes, Johnson’s desk, next week. Chances are, it will simply set out the details of each social gathering and pass no judgment – that, she could conclude, is for politicians to make.


All the while, Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police chief, is watching. However, given the force has made clear it will not look at historical breaches of the Covid laws, then Boris looks unlikely to have his collar felt. If Dick changes her mind, however, then partygate enters a different dimension.

Post the PMQs humiliation, the fightback included the dispatch of ministers to attempt to defend the indefensible.

Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, backed Boris’s line, referring to the “perception” those making the rules were not abiding by them. Hours later, his Cabinet colleague Brandon Lewis pitched up to declare: “The Prime Minister has outlined that he doesn’t believe he has done anything outside the rules.”

While, thus far, only four Tory MPs have publicly called for Boris to go, it is thought this weekend several more, after taking soundings from their constituents, will be pondering whether to send in their no-confidence letters to Sir Graham Brady, the inscrutable chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee. The magic number is 54 to spark a contest.

Top of MPs’ minds, of course, will be their own survival. The Gray report may be open to interpretation with Johnson loyalists emphasising what they see as extenuating circumstances and arguing he could recover. One ally declared: “Boris is not going to resign, he’s a fighter.”

If one were needed there is now another chapter to this unsavoury saga with the outbreak of bitter in-fighting among Tory parliamentarians.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Boris ultra-loyalist, couldn’t help himself and branded Douglas Ross a “lightweight” after the Scottish Tory leader demanded the PM jump. What does the arch-Unionist think such acrimony will do for the Conservative cause in Scotland?

While Ross and his colleagues might get some kudos from Scottish voters for distancing themselves from Johnson the insufferable, party splits are never good and simply hand opponents more ammunition.

One suggestion is that it is now “inconceivable” Johnson will be invited to speak at the party’s Scottish conference in March. Both sides may be delighted but the SNP and Labour will make hay.

The May local elections – amid a backdrop of rising taxes and prices – are looking even more of a disaster waiting to happen for the Conservatives than they already were.

Keir Starmer may at long last sense there is a chance of Labour wrenching the Unionist standard away from Tory hands. The comrades are now 10 points ahead in the polls.

Good judgement is the imperative of good government. Sadly, Boris has not shown enough of it because of his fundamental nature. As a classics scholar, he will know the famous line from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: every man’s character is his destiny.