For the first time in weeks, Big Dog had had an uninterrupted night’s sleep. The previous day had gone better than expected, with Christian Wakeford’s defection to Labour having shocked most of his rebellious MPs back into displays – ersatz or not – of public affection for him. Boris Johnson was now daring to believe he might be able to ride out the party scandals and Sue Gray and the Tory party would fail to notice, or just not care, that he had consistently lied about what he had done at every opportunity. Perhaps his luck had finally changed. Or perhaps not.
The prime minister’s first jolt with reality came when the baby-faced assassin, William Wragg, who had already called for him to resign, opened proceedings of the public administration and constitutional affairs select committee of which he was chair. He wanted to make a statement, he said. It had been brought to his attention that a number of MPs believed to be unhappy with Johnson’s leadership had reportedly been intimidated by government whips and threatened – in a direct breach of the ministerial code – with having public money withdrawn from investments in their constituencies.
Furthermore, these MPs had also allegedly been leant on with blackmail threats. If they didn’t fall in line, then the government would whisper in the ear of tame newspapers to plant hostile stories – who cared if they were true? – in the press. Having finished his opening remarks, Wragg turned to his two witnesses, Steve Barclay, chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster and minister for the Cabinet Office, and Alex Chisholm, chief operating officer of the civil service and permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office. Would they take this back to both the government and the civil service respectively? Both yawned, struggling to contain their uninterest, and said “whatever”.
Both Barclay and Chisholm seemed to have come to the committee with the sole intention of being as monosyllabic and as obstructive as possible. Why had it not been possible to get Sue Gray to appear before the committee to give evidence on the Greensill lobbying scandal? Barclay replied that it had been his predecessor, Michael Gove, who had blocked the committee on that occasion.
So would it now be possible to get her to appear? “To talk about Greensill?” asked Barclay. Yes, Wragg said. Hmm. The sloth-like Barclay slowly eased himself higher in his chair. Actually, he didn’t think that was a good idea because some members of the committee might use the occasion to ask her about her soon-to-be-published report on the prime minister’s parties. Not that they were parties, of course. Heaven forbid. What he could promise, though, was that he would come along to answer any questions they had for Gray.
But you don’t know anything, observed Tory David Jones. Barclay nodded eagerly. That was precisely why he was the right man to come back and appear before the committee. Barclay: the unthinking man’s time-waster. Chisholm was no more helpful when asked about the Lord Geidt inquiry into Big Dog’s hideous wallpaper. How was it that Geidt had only found out about the “forgotten” messages through the press?
Chisholm had no idea. It had been appalling that Geidt had found out about it at all. He would do his best to make sure that nothing was leaked to the media in future so there was no way Geidt could accidentally stumble on the truth. And what about the behaviour of No 10 staff and civil servants? Chisholm preened. He could assure the committee that Geidt had been extended the utmost respect and courtesy as everyone tried to hinder him from doing his job.
Outside the committee, it wasn’t long before the Big Dog Ultras were piling in on Wragg’s opening statement about intimidation and blackmail. Tory MP Pauline Latham insisted it had never happened to her. There again, she has never shown any sign of independent thought, so why should it?
Michael Fabricant, the idiot’s idiot, was less helpful than intended by tweeting that the whips had threatened him with all sorts of things in the past and it was no big deal. Nice one, Mickey Fab. Meanwhile Boris refusenik Andrew Bridgen said that the Times had printed an untrue story about him earlier in the week while Wakeford revealed that the whips had threatened not to go ahead with building a new school in his constituency. This new corruption allegation wasn’t about to go away any time soon.
Down in Taunton, on yet another visit to a hospital – Big Dog must have the prime ministerial version of Munchausen by proxy as he makes everything with which he comes in contact infinitely worse – Boris was having nightmares of his own. First he had had to listen to Sajid Javid come unstuck on the morning media round. The health secretary had first said that it was a complete coincidence that Covid was now over on the day the government needed good news, only to contradict himself and say it wasn’t over.
Then he had got into metaphysics. Could a party be said to have happened if no one could remember having been to it? Then he had said that everyone still trusted Big Dog. The questions they had for him were what killer combination of drugs he had taken that had rendered him both completely comatose and wiped his memory to such an extent he couldn’t even remember what the rules he had put in place were.
These were also questions he was asked by ITV’s Anushka Asthana in a pooled television interview. Sue Gray, he replied. Hopefully she would be able to tell him what he had been doing because he was buggered if he knew. Could we now talk about cancer diagnostics? We couldn’t, as Asthana pressed him on the Wragg allegations. He definitely couldn’t remember seeing or hearing of anything like that, he said. Then, his memory was totally shot these days anyway. So perhaps it had happened. He had no idea,
With that he scuttled off, desperate not to prolong his pain as he had with Beth Rigby earlier in the week. More long nights of the soul loomed ahead. Or at least intensive searches to find out whether he had one.