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The Man Who Topples Statues
Oliver Briscoe
Long read
December 2020 Y ou see much of a small part of the country, working for an MP in a seat you had never thought of.  Life of late seems to be a series of weekends; going to and from the constituency on the Caledonian Sleeper some of the more pleasant. Well-staffed, not too busy, one sleeps well enough.

Up after Storm Arwen, I was coming back for the Westminster week; Monday, votes late, until ten; Tuesday, votes until seven; Wednesday also seven and Westminster’s Friday, only to go up again for the weekend.
  Westminster is the proverbial village; Parliament, a palace with an estate, the Red Lion pub right outside one of its gates. Downing Street and Nº10 sit together, either or in print, except when it becomes domestic, the PM’s private apartment actually at Nº11, with Nº10 like a department. Whitehall and its mandarins run through it all up to Trafalgar.

I had left the Northern club around half eight, Aberdeen was baltic, Union Street harsh and depressing on a Sunday night.

After a wait, pacing alone down the platform of an empty station, which had no clock, I boarded as soon as the doors opened, pleased to find a warm, nifty en-suite cabin, well thought out and functional.
  Bags stowed, I made straight to the club car, which I found mine but one, taking a booth for a warm supper and a snifter.
  The spirit gave its sweet, smoky embrace just as the train pulled out and the car started to fill; a couple Scots, too lively and pleased with the train for a Sunday evening, a man on business and his computer and a Chinese couple.
  Nearing ten, I was quite ready for my pyjamas, a quiet, cosy bunk, tightly tucked sheets and Sunset Song; a wake-up call set and eggs royale ordered for breakfast.

The romance of waking in the sleeper, finding the Highlands in violent summer colours, breakfasting by the window, is not the same forty minutes out of Euston, on a Monday morning benighted by winter. Unlike rumbling through Scotland, nearing London one feels the rush to arrive on schedule.
  London looked foul.

Paterson, the storm, with a fortnight to go, Parliament’s Christmas recess seemed desperately near; perhaps we could just let things tick over until then.
  We were coming in after the Bexley by-election Friday. A 13 percentage-point vote share drop for us, with turnout just under half what it was in 2019.
  Bexley’s poor turn-out, for a traditional southern working Tory seat, though played down and pushed back by a weekend to last week’s news, was the first sign of how tired people were of the antics. The Paterson trial had put the blame directly on MPs and spoke to constituents, which really shook the parliamentary Party.

For the first time in weeks, nothing happened on Monday morning. Though we were wary, given that since the Conference recess, in October, there seemed to have been one mess a week; treated to two last Monday, a caveat in the social care cap published just before the vote in the evening, meaning the poorest would be paying more than we had first announced and, before backbench anger could rise, watching live what is to be forever known as Johnson’s most famous, Peppa pig, speech.
  Having the week before that also just ditched the northern and only part of HS2 that made any of it worthwhile, which outraged many Red Wall–a term no longer to be use publicly, internal focus groups have found it patronising–and northern MPs, gathered under the Northern Research Group.

All this, following shortages, an energy crisis and inflationary pressures since September, which has led to a rising cost of living. On top of controversial and questionable legislation around Immigration, Taxation, Electoral reform, the Courts and Sentencing.

The news on Tuesday was Afghanistan, the whistleblower Raphael Marshall’s statement to the Foreign Affairs Committee.
  MPs were not so rattled by the latest story. The allegations about the evacuation lined up with the sense of the situation at the time but for most it was neither their fault and did not bother too many constituents; August’s story.
  In amongst his many allegations, Mr Marshall claimed the PM had directly ordered help for Pen Farthing. The PM, as he had at the time, denied this. The day after Mr Marshall’s statement, Chris Bryant, chair of the Committee on Standards which the Paterson reforms sought to improve, published a letter of Trudy Harrison’s, Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, in which she gave notice to Mr Farthing that an evacuation slot had been secured, in an assured tone seemingly beyond that of a backbench MP. She argues that she was acting as Mr Fathering’s constituency MP.    
  As the Defence Secretary had gone so far as to publicly expressed his frustration with Farthing and his menagerie, to help evacuate his charity Nowzad was clearly not an MoD priority.
  Nowzad volunteer and prominent animal rights campaigner Dominic Dyer claims to have personally lobbied Carrie and was publicly quite certain that this had pushed the PM. We find ourselves again under the twilight  in which much of Johnsonian Nº10 moves; it is unlikely that Johnson was not aware.

The video came out early Tuesday evening, around six. In a dark room, where the PM, Public Health officials and ministers had all stood to address the nation, a handful of people who help run the country laughing looked rather sinister. It did the rounds quickly, with MPs all gathered, drinking and chit-chatting, waiting for divisions. Worried questions swirled, with the story first breaking before Prime Minister’s Questions last week and then before PMQs this week, what was it leading to next week? Who was behind this orchestrated attack? Cummings?
  It spread across Twitter, read by hacks, politicians and the Westminster crowd, and then Facebook, more worrying, where real people get their news and harangue their MP.
  Ant and Dec also called out the PM in front of between four and five million people, a merciless hit job; one of them signing off with “Evening Prime Minister…for now” as he jabbed towards the camera to make eye contact.

Wednesday’s daily papers were rabid, nostrils flared, and like a Hogarthian riot, all those Johnson has annoyed over the years took whatever they had to hand against him and jumped into the fray.
  Very quickly the emails came through, the first few later that evening and by mid-morning it was starting to look like another Hancock and Cummings. Conservative MPs waited nervously, braced for another beating. We had only just brought back Tory sleaze and now ‘one rule for us, another for them.’
  Wait and see PMQs seemed to be the Government line, as the story loomed over midday; so dire they even pulled Javid from the morning slots, leaving BBC Breakfast to empty-chair him.        
  Richard Holden, the go-to backbencher for Government media, was later sent out on Politics Live. One of the toughest stands to hold the line, all the more as there was no clear line, the show runs through the PMQs and one is reacting live.
  Former deputy head of Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) press, under Carrie Symonds as she was then, he knows better than most that you do not go on TV to answer questions, to be framed in a someone else’s story. You go on to say want you want to say and so he performed accordingly well.

A couple minutes to midday, I switch the annunciator television to the Chamber as our benches fill; the rest of Parliament either there or doing the same. The PM could be bullish or he could come clean, announce a few sackings, maybe spread some muck of his own.

The problem was that MPs, ours, as one of them told me, Opposition, SNP also had parties. There were a lot of unhappy backbenchers who said nothing and turned down press knowing they could not answer ‘And did you attend a party last Christmas?’ All it takes is a picture, a grudge, someone looking to stir a story. Not that the hacks from the daily papers were not at parties too, as has been in the Private Eye for months.
  Sir Keir has to his credit, a few times now been able to assure us there is nothing to see on his side, though you can be sure CCHQ were digging.

We all broke the rules at some point, I did too, a few times. I had stopped listening to Johnson long before. The difference of course is that they set the rules.
  Even at the height of lockdown the black-letter of the restrictions were vague, with get-arounds and an array of self-declarable exemptions. Arrests and fines were made very public but enforcement, given police staffing and the nature of the British policing, was limited, with forces like the Met not investigating breaches retrospectively; a rule that more than a year on has come in handy for Downing Street.

Chatting over lunch, no-one seemed to have made much of the story when first splashed across The Mirror; the first box in what parliamentary staff later agreed was an “advent calendar of shit.”
  Although Starmer spun his attack from it at PMQs then, strong and better than the PM, who tied the knot into this whole mess, they were only really glancing blows over the first two questions. It came across as Westminster tattle ‘rumours from a year ago’ and our line ‘getting on with the job, whilst they play politics’ held well. Sadly, even when Starmer is right he is not very good and, as often in Westminster, PMQs is a test of confidence where the feel matters as much as what is said.
  Then, like the rest of the parliamentary staff, I turned off the annunciator and went to meet the others.

PMQs ends the Westminster week. MPs go back to their constituencies from Thursday and public politics settle, unless a Sunday paper breaks a story or a minister is tripped up on television. So the story passed.

As the Speaker recanted the opening of this second bout, I needled a friend at the PM’s PPS’s office who helps prepare the briefing for PMQs. He comes back with “Why can’t I buy a house? Why can’t I see a doctor? Why can’t I get a well paid job? Why am still paying more taxes? Why are illegal immigrants still washing up on our shores? Why are pet thieves getting longer in prison than burglars? Oh, by the way, why were you having a Christmas party whilst I was alone one my home because you told me I could not leave?” Quite.

The PM opens strong, seizing the statement before the questions to claim ignorance and blame Nº10 staff. An investigation was to follow, which would only drag the story on. He tried to make a point of now, not then, around the need for new measures.
  Then he got weaker and weaker, like a man panting, shaking trying to loosen his own noose, not denying the party but claiming that he did not know about it, was not there, had learnt about it last week and that it might not have happened, having, in the same spot at the same time last week, told the House he had been assured the party was within the guidelines.

It is worth recording all this, even if it may seem simple, to set out clearly each step and understand how we get where we do.
  Was there a party on Friday the 18th of December 2020? Yes–the PM first tacitly admitted it when he said it was within the rules, at PMQs on the first of December.
  Did the PM know? Given his first line, probably. If not and he was repeatedly assured there was no party, by implication he must have asked, suspecting there had been one, and his team lied to him.
  The former would be, as Sir Roger Gale put it in the only Tory interview that morning “a hanging offence.” The PM would have misled Parliament.
  The latter would only be seriously concerning but not surprising for this Nº10. It was the line taken by the PM, as ever pushing on. This time though he did not make it through unscathed.

When Starmer had finished his excruciating questions, twisting his finger into the flesh of this nonsense, our backbenchers started on the new measures, which had only sharpened the hypocrisy left to fever that morning.
  William Wragg particularly was in a bad mood, annoyed enough for quite a few others, and struck down from high on the back row, asking about earlier unofficial briefings around further measures.
  There had been reports of a Cabinet meeting and an announcement to follow, without a statement to be made in the House first. A quick ask-around and I had heard from it was going ahead. The press had been well-briefed.

The PM still gave a very coy answer, which did nothing to temper backbench frustration. Hoyle only just hearing of it, gave a strongly-worded invitation for the Government to come forward. In the end they made a statement in the House at the same time as the national briefing.
  Only the morning before, batting on Afghanistan, had Raab assured national television that the Government saw no need to do anything.

Amidst the November crises, Starmer had made another step, if only a little reshuffle, towards becoming Government-in-waiting. In one of his best and most political moves, almost as if he had foreseen a tough winter and a new variant, he gave Wes Streeting Health.
  Intervening then at the tail-end of the session, his first from the front-bench, Streeting was notably strong; the kind of small impression that plays at the back of one’s mind, feeding into the sense of the balance of power.

As PMQs closed, news came out that there may have been three parties at Nº10, allegations of which were soon confirmed. It was also rumoured that Simon Case, the head of the Cabinet Office, appointed to lead the investigation which had just been announced, had attended the party in question.

In the dead time between midday and the evening briefing, the hacks tittered, scratching away, and the rolling news with no-one from Government or Tory MPs just about let anyone with a grudge come on air. The story was running, Nº10 press had failed to get ahead.
  There was, for example, some question around the exemptions of Crown Property from the restrictions under the Public Heath Control of Diseases Act 1984 and a brush with a criminal investigation, dismissed by the Met a few days later. Not that such a legal exemption would have ever really stood up, had it made it much beyond Westminster press.
  Though put out by the same papers and the same journalists, stories in Westminster do not always make it to the rest of the country, sometimes published to see how they play and quickly shut down or passed over; the recordings of Michael Gove’s Union speeches, for example, came and went within a day.

Sometime that afternoon Stratton comes out crying and resigns. Pushed? The PM at the later briefing, almost ruefully, made it sound like she had done it herself. Some corners of the press asked why she resigned if there was no party.
  Regardless, she was the face of it and the papers had their first body. Hard done by, who would not laugh having to spin what comes out of Downing Street.

It was not much later a tannoy pulled up onto Whitehall, playing out clips of the rules being announced and of Johnson denying rules were broken.

By the time Johnson held the briefing, the story had become no clearer and the lobby took the chance to ask the questions which midday’s poor show had left and those that had come up since; he could not bring himself to deny the other three parties when the allegations were put to him by Anushka Asthana of The Guardian.

By coincidence, Liz Truss was also speaking at the 1922 Committee that evening; a real Westminster coincidence of which one can be sure because it would have been, as goes the parliamentary joke, too well planned for Westminster; very few can think through so knowingly and nothing works out so easily.

The Nationality and Borders Bill, its scrutiny rather over-shadowed those last months, passed that evening; empowering the Home Secretary to strip British citizenship without notice, for national security, diplomacy or public interest reasons.

Thursday started with the news of Johnson’s child; a perfect example of Johnsonian chance. The third time this pandemic, after Wilfred and his near-death, abusing goodwill has kept him going politically.
  Presumably thinking to make use of the birth and ease pressure, the first statements made it sound like he would take paternity leave, missing the next PMQs.

That the birth was only the third story about him on the BBC News line up tells on the state of our politics.
  The Party was also that morning fined by the Electoral Commission over the way payment for the Downing Street flat refurbishments had been declared. From that Sam Coates at Sky uncovered a conflict of accounts. It appears Johnson messaged Lord Brownlow in November 2020, despite claiming to Lord Geidt, his advisor on standards, that he had not known anything about the donation which paid for the refurbishment until February 2021. Lord Geidt it seems considered resigning over having been misled, or at least this was leaked to The Daily Telegraph, which might just have been him saving face.
  Johnson apologised to His Lordship in the New Year, when he publicly rebuked the PM over this.

Months ago my MP and I had agreed to visit the largest Hasidic Jewish community in Europe. We had only come into the office to take the news and coffee quietly for an hour. By mid-morning we were off to Stamford Hill. Making out of the palace, we crossed a couple Tory MPs. One said he was sure the PM had misled the House and that he was close to putting in his letter. My MP nodded understandingly.
  Another coming through the Underground entrance, vented that the new measures made no sense, for a variant which by the accounts we had, was not as dangerous. My MP nodded understandingly.

Whilst we took coffee with the rabbis, enjoying kosher biscuits, it was announced the Case investigation would now look into two of the other parties. One which Cummings is alleged to have attended, Cleo Watson’s leaving; another SpAd and his close junior.
  In answer to this allegation, he took to Twitter to point out that this widened scope left out an alleged party for Lee Cain’s leaving as Nº10 Director of Communications, which the PM is supposed to have spoken at and another, the same evening, hosted by Mrs Johnson in the Downing Street apartment, which she denies.

If Cummings is behind part of this story,  it was clear then there must have been a couple sources. That he was in The Guardian front-page picture of a gathering in the Nº10 garden the following Monday furthers makes the point.
  In answer to that picture, Cummings denied it was a party, explaining that meetings were encouraged in the garden because of Covid. He then alleged another rule-breaking garden party, on the 20th of May 2020.

Snatching a look at our phone whenever we could, there had also been some tittering across the MP Whatsapp groups that the Government was minded to accept the Speaker’s request for the House to rise early, from Tuesday, thus avoiding the next PMQs altogether.
  Rees-Mogg appeared at the Dispatch box to announce Government business, a closely watched moment since the Government used that statement to sound the Paterson retreat, without telling MPs first; U-turns better done without warning to avoid leaking. The less everyone knows, the less effectively they can act for themselves.
  Rees-Mogg eased those rumours, announcing the House would sit on Wednesday. The rest of the day was quiet. Back by early afternoon, we crossed a few more MPs sinking down to the Jubilee line, making back to the country.

I was back on the sleeper that evening too. Going straight from the palace to station, I caught a quick pint with The Spectator’s Steerpike at a packed Red Lion. He did not think Cummings was behind the video, he thought it was Downing Street contractors. As with the Hancock affaire, it reminds one of all the non-political people, the outsiders working in amongst Westminster, who see and hear things.

Waking with dawn, I took breakfast along a tame North Sea, in quiet comfort. The Sunday papers had still to come and there was only one week to get through; Tuesday’s vote on health measures, PMQs Wednesday and Friday’s by-election in North Shropshire.
  If there was ever a time to stick a knife in, it was then. It was all catching up with the PM but he just had to scrape through. No one bothers with politics over Christmas.

As we came gently across the River Dee, I was quite happy to be almost as far as one can get from Westminster working for Westminster. Out by Union Square I found the granite warmer, more familiar. I was looking forward to the evening’s Christmas dinner.

Nothing came out over Saturday except the first rumours of a Plan C, heard first on Friday night across parliamentary WhatsApps.

With Tuesday’s vote clearly not going through on our majority, on Sunday the Government announced the measures would be set over three motions; a classic tactic to temper a rebellion and avoid a complete defeat.

The Sunday Mirror delivered its last blow, a picture of Johnson. Not quite him at an apartment party, it was not enough to take him down. Just another in the set of stories that has tarnished him for good.

It also meant, in a classic Johnsonian way, though he was trying to in the way he was answering questions, he had not directly misled the House.

At least the Friday night rumours of a Plan C seemed to have been warded off by Cabinet, as given to The Sunday Telegraph. Another classic means of Johnsonian Government; give it to the press, see the reaction which either informs Government, if it was their brief, or pushes the PM, if it has come from those seeking to shift him.
  It was only much closer to Christmas, when Sunak belatedly and so presumably reluctantly announced more money for the other parts of the Kingdom and business support in England, that tighter restrictions seemed likely. Whether decisions in Government are serious can often be seen by Treasury backing.

In the end, the back and forth on measures we saw through the front-pages, in the run up to Christmas, was classic Johnsonian indecision. Told something by the Men who whisper in numbers, not willing to cancel Christmas, especially last minute, the PM put it to his Cabinet, who as they have been, were split. Still left with taking the decision, the PM pushed it back, keeping it ‘under review’.

By voting ‘in the public interest’ with the Government, Starmer was trying to make Labour look like a government, able to lead during a crisis when the Conservative Party cannot.
  As Marr put it to him that Sunday morning, the obvious question was if Johnson is “unfit for office” a “threat to public health” as Starmer put it, why was Starmer keeping him in office?
  Marr also asked what Labour were going to ask for in return for their support, which Starmer side-stepped.

If Labour had some daring, they would have opposed at least one of the measures, the most controversial perhaps on entry checks, to test the resolve of the Party in upholding the Government.   
  Instead they again wrote themselves into our narrative, an Opposition that never opposes. Given Labour has supported the Government previously, when the rebellion was greater than the Tory majority, to little political gain, they could have backed themselves and this time tried something else. A real Government has power and real power is to collapse a sitting Government.
    Though our ‘playing politics’ counter has worked before, it would falter amidst a full rebellion. The Government could not credibly turn to the Shadow Front Bench and claim that the Tory Party was resolved in its leadership.

Up until then, Labour always seemed to be arguing the last point. If Starmer has a sense of politics, he had never moved with primal instinct, never sprung an attack on Johnson; the few blows he landed were always answers to the Government’s news.
  Starmer had played by the rules whilst Johnson did not, which is why he was untouchable; only a few care for rules when they get in the way of great promise.

Starmer was still thinking that being responsible was ‘saving the NHS’.  ‘Save the NHS’ will always be Johnson’s line and a tired one even we barely used this time, though it still guides Government strategy.
  The real risk in opposing was whether Omicron would worsen drastically; so far not so.

At some point throughout Sunday it was decided and then briefed that the PM would address the nation. That evening Omicron was officially declared a serious threat, like some ex machina villain jumping into the final act of an episode of Japanese Power Rangers.
  The fundamental problem the Prime Minister had is that you could not believe a word he was saying. You will cry out it has always been so; yet we came this far.

Work from home was taken happily a week before recess, I came back to find our corridor empty.
  That evening about thirty parliamentary staff were booked at the Red Lion for a dinner, with an MP as a guest speaker. Not allowed on the estate, they could still meet in Westminster for dinner.

The statement had distracted the Monday front pages and the inbox had as much on ‘vaccine passports’ as on Johnson’s lying. Quite a few were thanking my MP for his public opposition, many not constituents, which I have never seen; the public writing to say thank you.
  Though not representative, MPs take a sense of the national mood through their inbox; who writes and who does not, what they usually write about and the tone they use. Knowing how to read the inbox, one gets the public’s first reaction to a story and how the unfolding narrative is then understood.
  It is also worth keeping in mind that for every constituent who writes, twice or thrice as many will be feeling the same.

Tuesday morning’s Tory MP breakfast club, as ever an eclectic group, was in good spirits apparently. Though the Chief Whip became rather forlorn as the day ahead loomed. The debate was set for two o’clock.

Quintin Letts in The Times had profiled the various factions forming to close on Johnson. Not completely accurate, it gives a good idea of how the Party opposition to Johnson came from various parts and had to come together.
  There is no concerted group like the European Research Group to turn on Johnson, as they did on May, driven by one issue. The Covid Recovery Group (CRG) has been strongly against Government Covid policy but there are not too many of them and, made up of Brexit Spartans, they had some attachment to Johnson.
  The other CRG (the China Research Group)–just like that one can see how Westminster gets confused–headed by Tom Tugendhat might be another but the PM has quickly recovered from his days as a sinophiliac and Tugendhat’s grudge is not enough on its own.

Those who had tried to stop Johnson from the start had been pushed out before the 2019 election; a purge widely alleged to have been sorted by Douglas ‘Dougie’ Smith, the Nº10 fixer of whom there are famously only two published pictures.
  Those who owe Johnson, most people in power these last years–there are spoils in backing the winning horse–needed to get to the point where that patronage was worthless, harmful even. The Red Wall MPs and the rest of the 2019 intake were getting there. The lack of levelling up and the working voter’s common decency meaning they would have a better chance at keeping their seats without Boris’ backing.

Throughout the day there was of course leadership gossip in and out of offices. Scala was on, as often is when the office is in a good mood; Handel’s Coronation playing down the fourth floor corridor.     
  I know of at least one cabal, formed months ago, whose candidate, an outside runner with no chance of making past the final two, seriously thinks he can win and has serious money behind him.
    Running for the leadership is not always about winning, it can simply show whomever does, the support one has in the parliamentary Party and why one is therefore better kept onside with a Cabinet position.
  We see from the 2019 race, for example, how Gove, Javid, Raab and Hancock, first opponents, were later rewarded.
  Hunt, a May man, in the end gathering the anti-Johnson vote, on the other hand has been kept far apart.
  He was playing his part that morning though, on the Science and Technology Committee. They were taking evidence from the Chief Medical Officer of Moderna, who explained it was looking likely one could have Omicron and Delta together.

MPs who back outriders do not get the same reward but bank on some patronage, kept in mind and owed by those arisen.

Priti’s Christmas card came across my desk, another in a mounting pile; the sending of which is a whole other political give and take and would need years of close study to understand precisely. If we had a hand-written line in ours from her, not for everyone, I know some favoured MPs had hampers waiting in her Parliamentary office.
  Though once popular with Party members, her failure to handle migration, though not the top story recently, has cost her in the view of the membership; not that she would make it to the final two, chosen by the parliamentary Party.

Sunak chose that week to go MIA, ensuring he was seen nowhere near the PM around the rebellion, given leave to abstain on the vote and then take a quiet Treasury trip to California.

Truss’ SpAd Sophie, younger, blonder, sharper, had been sounding out friends in the backbenches.   
  Truss also chose to stay quiet, apart from meowing about Russia and riding a tank in Latvia; part of the Thatcherite image she has spun which makes her popular with the membership.
  It only took about a fortnight for Wallace to come out in The Spectator and make clear we would not be deploying to protect the Ukraine; the ever closer threat distracted from by other news.

Sunak or Truss. Sunak has the support of the parliamentary Party, Truss might win out when the choice is put to members. If she were to win, whereas Sunak might be able to hold the country until the next election in 2023-24, she is more likely to have to seek a national mandate and, with that unfortunately common political character, lightweight, awkward, over-promoted, an image more than a result, who has survived so far by keeping her head down, it could kill her off.

Around mid-morning Ipso Mori’s Political Monitor polling (taken two weeks earlier) comes out with Starmer as ‘most capable leader’; Labour ahead for first time since Brown. The press release detailed “When asked who would make the most capable PM 44% of Britons choose Keir Starmer (+6 from Sept), 31% choose Boris Johnson (-7 points).”
  However as the national electoral boffin Prof Sir John Curtice pointed out  “We are talking about a collapse in the Tory vote not a revival of the Labour party… The point is that Labour still have to make any kind of significant advance in their own popularity. This is all about the Tories going down the tubes.”

Starmer builds against a failing Johnson, Labour currently offer little, which is why the view is that turnouts will be low as saw in Bexley, rather than people voting Labour.

Either the Party needs to find a new issue to fight the next election on or a new leader to fight it. Little Johnson has done so far has given us a record to fight on. Our next leader would need to renew the Party as Boris did after May.
  We know too little of both to say what they stand for. If this fortnight was a long downfall, as always, the next two years could be anything.

The mood of the parliamentary Party had been dejected, powerless, as the Labour Party was once again going to prop-up the Government. The debate brought weeks of frustration to head.
  As we all are, the parliamentary Party were tired of restrictions and here was a rare chance for some legitimate scrutiny into the measures.

There was also some frustration that PM had seemingly panicked in offering a booster to everyone, another moonshot, putting everything else in the NHS on hold. The booster opening to 18 year olds making little sense, like when a plane is disembarked row by row but the next set are called before the first has set off and everyone stands up and knots the aisle.

The BBC Westminster Correspondent Nick Eardly confirmed reports of the PM phoning rebels throughout the day to dissuade them, only to later join the Chief Whip in the tearoom to take backbenchers aside.

The Government also put up Professor Whitty to brief MPs in another attempt to sway them.

In the Chamber Javid made a good show of taking the hits. For example, conceding border controls were no longer helpful as he announced the lifting of the red list. Meagre proof of the Government acting sensibly, it did nothing to abate backbenchers.

The Covid Recovery Group turned up to say their piece; Sir Desmond gave a notably spirited speech, swaying a bit as he declaimed.
  The usual Government whipping boys also said theirs.

Taking a question from Mark Harper, who heads the CRG, on whether the Government would commit to recalling the House over Christmas to vote on further restriction, Javid refused to be drawn. Again, not much helping parliamentary anger, he started with ‘I have heard no plans for further restrictions,’ which was a sure sign they was to be some attempt at introduction.
  Harper also pointed out Minister had written about preferring vaccine passports but brought it testing alternatives to soften the House. He called again for the House to vote against at least one of the measures, in protest.

Labour fielded their new Health Secretary. Streeting turned out much better at contrasting Labour’s position than Starmer. A better orator, he struck more instinctively and is not tainted with our old attacks.

There is no point running through the arguments, my trying to soothsay, finger through the entrails. The Government is probably best informed on Omicron. The lack of trust came from the fact these decisions were choices and there was concern about how they were being informed and made.
  Many of the rebels voted against not because they did not believe in measures to handle Omicron but because these measures were not the right ones, not evidence-based, and that the Government seemed to have lost its nerve in trying to distract.

Around five o’clock the PM pleaded with the 1922. The Government seemed to think that had worked. The first reaction a now roundly quoted line from an unnamed minister “the rebels are haemorrhaging.”
  When the debate close at half six, it did feel perhaps backbenchers had talked a big game but would not hold. Johnson’s pleading it seems only emboldened them, never a good effect for a leader.

The votes:
359 Conservative MPs (including the speakers from our benches, Laing and Evans). The payroll vote 139 (94 Ministers and 45 PPSs), leaving 220 free, potential Tory rebels.

Deputy Speaker Dame Rosie Winterton reads the motion, the Ayes and Noes are cried. ‘Division!’ and the bells ring across the estate.

First division: On extending the wearing of masks, 482 votes

Ayes 441
Noes 41

38 Tory rebels, 2 Tory tellers for the ‘Noes’ (Tellers on both sides are not counted in the votes)
46 Tory abstentions

Second division: Entry checks for venues, 495 votes

Ayes 369
Noes 126
‘Oohs’ and an audible ‘ouch’ heard on announcement, almost half the free vote rebelled.

98 Tory rebels, with the same 2 Tory tellers
45 Tory abstentions

Third division: Vaccination mandate for NHS staff, 485 votes

Ayes 385
Noes 100

61 Tory rebels, with the same 2 Tory tellers
38 Tory abstentions

Many of the Tory abstainers were absent ministers and Scottish Tories who, like the SNP, have never voted on English restrictions. A few like Andrew Bowie and Douglas Ross abstained legitimately and yet had publicly stated they were against the entry checks. Scotland’s own such measure, imposed some months before, had made little difference.
  Play spot the difference and the numbers also clearly show a few who abstained on some of the motions and voted against on others, so they would have been without slips or pairs–permissions not to vote, agreed between the Government and Opposition Whips Offices so that an MP can be absent without affecting the balance of the division.

Steerpike also found out that Tory MP Royston Smith had missed the unanimous passing of the second motion, as listed on the order paper, on the isolation rules. As a result, the entry checks motion became the subject of the second division. Smith voted Aye by mistake. He later confirmed he would have voted against the measure.

Does this defeat matter? Not directly but it tells of the little sway the PM now has on the parliamentary Party. It was taken as a vote against Johnson, bringing together the various Party factions; many reasonable, well-respected colleagues, who could not all be cast as mad Covid deniers. Even Louie French, Bexley’s newest only last week sworn in, defied the whip on entry checks.

No Government payroll protests though, no-one from the Front Bench resigned to vote against. Only junior Labour front-bencher Rachael Maskell, MP for York Central, did to oppose entry checks.

Throughout the day, quite a few MPs, lobby and staff tested positive. Omicron, from one week to the next, had suddenly become alarming as it ripped across the estate and through anecdotes of last week’s dinner parties. My MP was going home early, the three-line to be dropped after PMQs, so I took leave to WFH the next day.

Another Wednesday and another party in The Mirror, a picture of Shaun Bailey, the London mayoral candidate (not the same-named MP), at a party. He resigned. The story passed, a line from morning presenters digging an angle and Schapps, the steady hand sent to do the morning round, had no problem condemning him publicly.
  As a sign of a browbeaten Government, Schapps also confirmed Parliament would be recalled to vote on any further measures.

The last PMQs and the PM opens with bluster on last week’s missed drug policy announcement; you have to admire his boasting, he did not sound like a dead man.

Starmer presses on last night’s disagreement between the backbenches and Government. He follows up this line in his next two question and his case builds. Still, he could not whip up outrage or command political flare, sounding like he was prosecuting a speeding offence.
  As expected, the evening news and morning reports were ‘Gov. motions pass, with Labour voting for’ headlines broadcast actions, not given reasons. To listen to anything beyond what one side and the other are reported as saying is to have ‘an interest’ in politics.
  His distinction between backing public health but not Government was too nuanced for PMQs and a national message. If you are turning away from the Conservatives, you are hardly going to be tempted back to vote for Labour who vote Conservative.

The PM tried his usual show, as if last week had not happened, to rouse the benches. They were not in the mood. As Starmer put it when Johnson claimed he had won the night before with the Tory vote “[The PM is] socially distanced from the truth.”
  Every time Johnson turned for their support, no one flinched and he was left his back up against a wall. Even the congratulations on his daughter did not garner much of a defensive cheer.
  May was perched a couple rows back, very still and quiet, some small part of her must have been delighted.

Until then, Johnson had so far always been able to carry on because of his sure sense of what really moves the public; the rest he can ignore and does.
  Shamelessly, he will do anything, abuse any worry, doubt, convention and goodwill to get through; worry, the Nº10 parties, that any of them could have their own lockdown breaches found out; doubt from those who hold their seats through him; convention, avoiding the House; goodwill, the birth of his child.
  Johnson’s victories and those who backed him meant that he no longer held his premiership as first amongst equal Members. The parliamentary Party was beholden to him, working in his image; true also for most of his Cabinet and his appointments across Government; the Party, on a lifeline after eleven years of power, short of people at the top.

One also has to remember the people backed Boris, they wanted him. A weak Opposition in 2019 helped.
  The pandemic further empowered him, making decisions only the PM has a mandate to make. A continued weak Opposition has not helped.

These are shifting the pressures that have worked for Johnson with every he was made, so far keeping the parliamentary Party in check.
  This has gone on for two years now and almost everyone in the Party is damned by it in some way. Half-truths gone along with later make for awkward spin. Instead of putting a stop to it early, MPs got caught up, kept their heads down and kept quiet.

54 letters needed, the 15%, to trigger a leadership challenge which is not done lightly. The fastest way to change in politics is a winning campaign but elections give the upper hand to chance, in a world where the power to set a course is the delusion.
  After the 1922 Executive committee all voted against entry checks, its long-standing chair, kingmaker Sir Graham chose the day after to make clear that MPs could email in their letter, followed by a call to confirm, rather than write; the modern Conservative Party.

Every time Johnson has pushed past, he pushed people aside, losing goodwill. With every scandal, one hears of a few more letters being sent in. A ritual Westminster rumour when things are not going well like the growing drumbeat to tribal sacrifice.

This scandal stuck, compared to those past, because it directly undermines his Covid premiership over the last two years. A poor showing from Brexit so far and the lack of results from his broader public spending policies gives him little else to fall back on.

He has brought this country to a place which, so astounding, is worth repeating as many times as it is easy to do so clearly. In two years, there is not one area of our public life he has not in some way spoilt. Men like him dismantle Republics but he has gone further and brought the British Government, stronger because it is held by more than democracy,  into disrepute. For man who hoped to outlast Thatcher, his downfall, in what may prove to be a very short premiership, has furthered the country’s decline in a way few British Prime Ministers wilfully have; he is the man who topples statues.

I saw him speak for the first time at the South Eastern Conference reception in October. He was bundled in by security and SpAds; Ed Oldfield, brought to light in that video, leading the retinue tucked behind his greatcoat. The room crowded, was strong-armed apart and started chanting his name; ‘Boris, Boris, Boris,’ louder and louder.
  On stage, enthused, he let loose, fists shaking. When he had finished they mobbed him, still chanting, as he was whisked away through a back door. No one could catch more than a glimpse of that infamous profile, stocky, hunched, pale, tired and ill-looking, or a few words and a handshake; a second too long and he would have seemed real, weak, human.
  I had found one of the few chairs in a corner and watched both petrified and thrilled, thinking tyranny starts in rooms like that, moments like that, in one man’s power to move a crowd.

The thing about trying to grasp Johnson is that it has all been said already. It is clear to so many. At every outrage we receive at least a hundred letters, rants, more or less well written, all the same, the same words coming up again and again ‘liar’ ‘unfit to lead’ ‘cannot be trusted’ and particularly popular ‘incompetent’. No matter how reasoned and true, filing each of them away thinking “yes, I agree” “you’re not wrong,” they mean nothing, mocked by the apathy of power, that has in other countries given way to far worse regimes.
  Once can easily get caught up in hating Johnson, losing sight that a deep personal loathing, though enough for a cabal, is not enough to take down a popularly elected leader; the many put him there, it needs as many to take him down.

Thankfully, the ways and means by which our politics run, is turning on Johnson. ‘Enough is enough’ as the Steve ‘hardman’ Baker, with steel straight from a Far West shootout, put it to the Johnsonian allegory that is Nadine Dorries, when she tried to defend the leader.

There is only the small matter of getting rid of the man. One can take heart in the fact that he has so far always given another chance to finish the job.
  For now, unless further damning pictures of him come out, proving he directly misled the House, and they would have by now,  poor local elections in May would do it. After tax rises, a cost-of-living squeeze, inflation set to rise over 5% and energy price rises, in April. People do not vote to stay poor. Tories never keep losers.
  Before that, the report on Downing Street parties is due. The investigation now headed by Sue Gray, the respected Second Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet Office.

Almost an afterthought, a hangover, the North Shropshire results throbbed across the media on Friday morning.
  Deep blue, Tory for just shy of 190 years, 60% Leave, we lost a 23,000 majority to a 6,000 Lib Dem gain, a 34% swing. A 46% turnout, a 22 percentage-point drop on 2019. That spooks MPs.
  Numbers do not matter as much as the way people take them; these were scary numbers.

There was also the small irony Twitter pundits could help but gleefully point out, exactly by then Paterson would have served his thirty day suspension.

That afternoon Guido, the Westminster tattle rag, also broke that Simon Case, held his own party at 70 Whitehall, days before the infamous one round the corner. Downing Street admitted he was stepping down from the investigation over the news, after the Cabinet Office had firmly denied any rumours when it first broke and then had come out saying it was only a quiz, to find that excuse had already been used.
  Not that Mr Case seemed much bothered by any of this when it was first announced he would head the investigation.

Over the week, a handful of other Departments had also apologised for hosting their own Whitehall staff parties. It gives one the distinct sense that the whole of Government has just been taking the piss these last two year.

As ever one turns to the front-pages. Oracles–it makes no sense to take their views as widely true and they speak only in vague moods–we follow them because that is what we do. The Telegraph and The Spectator have both turned against the PM for some months now, with Fraser Nelson resolutely writing against him for both. Even Guido gave a rare opinion view on the nonsense they report.
  The PM’s sure support, the Express would struggle to spin a defence that weekend, the Saturday headline resorted to asking us to have ‘faith’ in Johnson.
  Long ago the Mail, under Grieg, was the first to call out the PM. On Saturday it followed what Sir Charles Walker had said about the by-election, that the result was a foot-stamp from fed up Tories.

The week ended with the Mail on Sunday breaking Lord Frost’s resignation. If anything, Johnson’s close ally, ennobled to be made Brexit minister, resigning over Covid is a metaphor for what this Government has been.

It also gives us the chance to exercise some sure questions around political resignations. In his doorstep statement on Monday, Frost spun the resignation as frustration with Plan B measures, taxes and the extreme green lobby that has taken hold of Nº10; classic Tory issues. Is the publicly stated reason true? Rarely fully, but it follows and sets the growing Tory narrative, the story those who backed Johnson tell themselves, that he got Brexit done but proved no leader and lost it over Covid; a man who has carried his mandate and should step down.
  The narrative covers up that so far Brexit has been done in only in the reductive sense of us leaving, not having done anything much since.

Who is going to be rewarded with Frost’s position? What is freed as a result? Having backed Remain, Truss’ appointment to the Brexit portfolio strengthens her as she looks to prove herself to Brexiteers, whom she will need for a successful leadership bid.
  It is not clear what it means for Europe,  she is hardly going to roll over as a result, though she may be pragmatic, trying to make some headway to prove her worth.

In a week, Johnson was rejected by the Party, the electorate and one of his closest advisors on his headline policy.

Back up to Scotland one last time before Christmas, a habitué of the service, again I boarded early, stowed my bag and made straight to the dining car; decent lamb and another fine snifter.

We pulled out of Euston four minutes late, made two metres, stopped for half a minute and off again.
  Scraping and stumbling down the carriage, the last sip still warming. A steward followed me. I pace along, fall into my cabin and lock the door behind me…nothing.
Knock, knock. I open “Can I see your ticket please?”
“Oh, yes, of course, sorry.”
He checks, disappears and I close the door again with a turn of the lock.

Tucked in the top bunk, darkness tarring the window, knowing I will be in Scotland tomorrow, I lay past late reading by lamplight to the silent rhythm of the track, rain clinging to the window.

Waking at half five, taking a peak outside, I caught ‘Carlisle’. When I woke again at half six and made to breakfast, there had been a ‘signal failure’ in the night; the catch-all for train delays which means nothing to no-one.
“Three hours.”
“Ah.” The dawn was just seeping in, cloaking the black hills on the marches blue. I took a slow ‘Highland breakfast.’ The black pudding crumbled; the salmon and Hollandaise is better.

The delay meant the day trains had taken the line and we found ourselves waiting at Edinburgh Waverley. We were only to get in by midday. One can work quietly in the dining car and there are worse ways to spend a morning.
  Pulling back from Edinburgh, on the cavernous line beneath enlightened townhouses and a baronial keep, we made over the firth of Forth, the bridge like a spiny loch monster. The cold sun rose, mellow, as both windows filled with the awe of such a crossing and the wonder of great engineering.

The line follows round right on the water, the hills across the firth still wispy shadows in the morning hue; the pale, terse yet so passionate, vigorous colours of wintered Scotland.
  Looking back out at the Forth, pretty, glimmering across the expanse, a muted yearning stuck in my throat, longing to break out and go far, far across the water. To be outside, with the land, with Scotland.

I picked up the epitaph of the Song as we trained through the Mearns. This was the view I had dreamt of, dreams of Kinraddie, the dream that powers this service, sold on posters and the London ticketing office.
  I turned back to hold a fleeting sight of Stonehaven, along the most striking part of the line, risen onto the sheer, sharp cliffs of the Highland fault.
  There, on the hill across the bay, was the tuscan temple to the War-dead and beyond it, from the places beyond the sun, Dunnottar Castle vanished in the midday glint.

You peer into the land, trying to understand the place, get a sense of its life, its ways and you can feel them, so rich, so much to be understood, that those vague impressions will one day move within you and you will no longer be a stranger somewhere else but home, with heartfelt, spirited belonging. That one day the land will be yours too. You will come to share it with all the kind people who first shared it with you. You will love it as they do, that gentle, quiet love of a place, at peace with the passing of years.

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