Michael Settle: Boris is now beginning to believe he might survive this mess

PARTYGATE is becoming another long-running Whitehall farce but the only people laughing, at the moment, are Boris Johnson and his loyal band of true believers.

The latest episode in the political soap opera underscores how Westminster can sometimes be not only the theatre of the absurd but also of the anti-climax.

Let’s recap. Since November, Scotland Yard has faced calls to probe partygate but huffed that it didn’t do retrospective investigations. As outrage was expressed, it puffed there was simply not enough evidence despite the opposite being glaringly the case.

It was only when Whitehall bloodhound Sue Gray, who has for weeks been sharing information with the police, had finished her inquiry and was about to pop it on Boris’s desk, that Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Commissioner, chose that moment, on Tuesday, to mention she had after all decided to order an investigation.

To pile disbelief on top of frustration, having suggested there was nothing whatsoever to stop Gray publishing her report, 72 hours later WPC Plod insisted she would rather the mandarin have “minimal reference” to all the damning bits, so the force could make its own inquiries without prejudice.

Then, on Friday evening, the Met issued yet another statement, insisting it had not delayed the Gray report, adding: “The timing of its release is a matter for the Cabinet Office inquiry team.”

The Keystone Kops couldn’t have made a worse fist of this. One has to feel sorry for Gray, who looks set to hand over a heavily-redacted report – minus the damning bits – with Boris making his Commons statement next week.

One Tory MP branded Scotland Yard a “broken organisation” and claimed fears that the Gray report would look like a whitewash were down to the force’s “incompetence”.

Of course, whenever the police report is published, it will not include as much detail as Gray’s full version as we are dealing here, in criminal justice terms, with misdemeanours that would warrant only fines.

The police probe raises the prospect that it could be weeks if not months before the full Gray report emerges by which time its impact will have been severely diminished; much, no doubt to the PM’s delight.

Such is the whiff of a large rodent now hanging over the partygate process, opposition politicians are beginning to sniff a top-level “stitch-up” between the Met and Number 10.

Tory backbenchers are not happy either. Sir Christopher Chope accused the force of “usurping its position by seeking to interfere in the affairs of state” and pointed out, because criminal charges were not imminent, then the matter was not sub judice. “That’s why this is an abuse of power by the Metropolitan Police,” he declared.

The argument is, given the political importance of the Gray report to the national interest, it trumps any police inquiry that would, at worst, end up with a few Downing St insiders being fined. Publish and be damned is the cry.

Some legal experts are unhappy too. Lord Macdonald, England’s former Director of Public Prosecutions, said the Met’s move seemed “disproportionate” in the face of “very powerful” public interest in the Gray report’s swift publication.

And then there are those who have lost loved ones to Covid. Fran Hall, whose husband served in the police for more than three decades before dying with coronavirus, accused Scotland Yard of letting bereaved families down as the Gray inquiry became “a circus”.

Downing St has proffered the “nothing-to-do-with-me-guv” defence, insisting it hadn’t had any conversations with the Met or the Cabinet Office over what could or could not be published. The Cabinet Office, of course, with more than 2,000 staff, serves the PM.

As the internal party pressure on him mounts over whether to scrap or not to scrap the planned National Insurance rise, one backbench Tory MP has broken cover to throw his hat in the ring should Johnson be ditched in a no-confidence vote.

Backbencher Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, has been critical of the Government’s handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Some Conservative MPs believe he is the party’s “best chance for a fresh start”.

The former soldier, 48, who has served in Afghanistan and Iraq, made clear it was “up to all of us to put ourselves forward” and stressed anyone who could get enough support from colleagues should “go for it”.

Such has been the nervousness within Cabinet, first Jacob Rees-Mogg and then Nadine Dorries popped up this week to wrongly insist if Boris went, there would have to be a general election.

It may well be that a newly-installed prime minister might call an election to seek their own mandate but, constitutionally, it is not required.

What Rees-Mogg and Dorries were doing is putting the frighteners on wavering Tory colleagues, warning them that, in the aftermath of a Johnson defenestration, they would be forced to defend their seats; so, better to keep the PM in post and not risk losing them.

The thinking in Downing St is: the longer the PM can string this out, the greater the chance he has of surviving. From his perspective, Johnson is banking on enough voters will believe turning the economy around will trump any qualms people have about his lack of personal integrity.

After weeks of unnerving turbulence, the Save Big Dog team is feeling chipper. One Cabinet minister told The Times the Met’s decision meant the PM was now “out of the danger zone” while another admirer said: “We feel the support is growing on a daily basis. There is a confidence 54 won’t even be hit.”

With plans for a swift Downing St shake-up, a high profile diplomatic trip to eastern Europe next week to stop Ukraine descending into war and the Levelling-Up White Paper due soon, Boris is beginning to believe: “Crikey, I can survive this.”

This weekend, Johnson is lounging at Chequers, contemplating his great escape and displaying a smug smile worthy of the cat that got the cream; or should that be cake.

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