Some of the Tory backbenchers looked furious. The others just appeared bewildered to have been fooled for so long. Taken for mugs, like the rest of the country. But they needn’t have been. After all, Boris Johnson was always going to be Boris Johnson. A liar is gonna lie. He speaks, he lies. He’s a man without moral authority who degrades and poisons everything with which he comes in contact. A sociopath whose main pleasures are self-preservation and laughing at those to whom he has a duty of care.
There had been a few boos from the opposition benches and a silence from his own that Johnson tried to style out as he took his place for PMQs. But his eyes gave the game away. Bloodshot, furtive pinpricks. The telltale signs of the chancer who feels his world beginning to close in on him. Boris started with the non-apology.
“Let me get this straight,” he said. A sure sign he was about to start lying. There again, breathing is also a sure sign Johnson is about to start lying. He was absolutely furious. But only that the video had been leaked. It would have been far better if its existence had never come to light. But now that it had, he was very, very angry with Naughty Allegra Stratton and her mates for undermining lockdown guidelines by being caught practising their excuses for a hypothetical Christmas party.
Boris wasn’t angry about the party itself, because that had never happened. It was just entirely coincidental that Stratton had joked about a party on the same date as had been reported, had said she went home before the party that didn’t happen started, and had appeared confused about how best to explain it. In the end she had settled on a cheese and wine party that wasn’t socially distanced. As a crap improviser, Allegra was up there with Boris himself.
Within seconds we were on a mind-bending trip through the looking-glass as Johnson announced there would be an investigation, headed by the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, into the party No 10 had spent a week saying hadn’t happened. And if it was found that the party that hadn’t happened had actually happened after all, then Boris would be sure to throw a few members at the bottom of the Downing Street heap under a bus.
Reality was soon distorted further. Boris could not confirm that Case had not been at the party that had never happened, so it was possible the cabinet secretary would end up having to interview himself. Before confirming the party had not been a party because no one had thought to bring him a “secret Santa” present. That still hurt. Johnson also later made clear that Case’s remit only extended to the one party on 18 December. All the other Downing Street lockdown parties that hadn’t happened – including ones that Boris had definitely attended – would not be investigated. To save Johnson the effort of sacking himself.
Even by Boris’s standards, this opening address was a shambles. It didn’t fool anyone. Keir Starmer kept his questions sharp and focused. No one believed the prime minister, so could he at least show some self-respect by admitting the truth. Leadership started at the top, and the reason there had been so many illegal parties at No 10 was because everyone working there knew Boris didn’t give a toss about the rules.
The rules were for the little people. Like Tricia, who had not been able to say goodbye to her mother in person while staff at No 10 were having a knees-up and rehearsing their lies. Like the Queen, who had sat alone during Prince Philip’s funeral. Just not for Boris and his cronies. They could do what they wanted.
Johnson had no answer. He was bang to rights, but just lacked the self-respect to acknowledge it. So he debased himself further by repeating the same nonsense that not even he believed, before accusing Labour of playing party politics with Covid. Another lie, as Labour has consistently voted with the government on health measures. But once you’ve started lying, it’s hard to break the habit.
There was no respite for Johnson when Starmer was done. The SNP leader, Ian Blackford, was for once not shouted down when he called on Boris to resign. Rishi Sunak could even be seen nodding vigorously. It’s an ill wind and all that. Labour’s Rosena Allin-Khan wondered how Boris sleeps at night. The answer was simple. He sleeps on one side of the bed and his conscience sleeps on the other. God knows where Carrie sleeps.
The Tory William Wragg said he hoped Boris wasn’t planning anything like a Covid press conference as a diversionary tactic later in the day. Though that’s precisely what Johnson had in mind, because at 6pm he appeared in the same room where Stratton had recorded her video, flanked by his two window-dressing stooges, Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, aka Bill and Ben the Flower Pot Men, to give a press conference. Hard new medical data had suddenly come to light, he said – it was the first time Downing Street parties had been classified as hard medical data – and he was going to have to move the UK to Covid plan B status at least 24 hours earlier than planned.
Inevitably, almost all the questions focused on Partygate. Where was the leadership? How come Allegra Stratton had been the only one to take responsibility for what takes place in No 10 by resigning? And she hadn’t even been to the sodding party. Wasn’t it about time the prime minister accepted that rules had been broken while he was in charge? Why not investigate all the parties? Boris hummed, hahed and dribbled. No fully formed, intelligible sentences emerged. Other than that, he thanked Allegra for whatever she had done. He couldn’t quite remember what.
Still the questions came. It was now a matter of trust. Why should the public accept the new restrictions when there was every chance Boris wouldn’t be following them himself? Boris cleared his throat. Because the public were better than him. They would suck it up even though they knew he was lying through his teeth. For once, Johnson was probably telling the truth.
• A Farewell to Calm by John Crace is published by Guardian Faber, price £9.99. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
• John Crace and Zoe Williams will be live on stage in London at a Guardian Live event on 13 December. Join the conversation in person or online by booking tickets here.