It was all about the next question from Sir Keir Starmer, but although Mr Johnson tried to take the wind from his sails by announcing an investigation into last year’s alleged Downing Street Christmas party, there was dampening of Labour and SNP fury as the Prime Minister stuck to his lines that he took the matter very seriously, that he was getting on with the job of tackling Omicron while the opposition played politics.
But the raucous house instantly turned to pin-drop silence as Sir Keir told the story of a woman who was unable to visit her dying mother in hospital at the same time as the party was said to have taken place; like Dominic Cummings, one rule for them and another for us.
With even Ant and Dec piling in on Tuesday night, questions about the Prime Minister’s integrity are cutting through to the public as never before, and Conservative WhatsApp groups would have been fizzing with opinions about the performance and the Prime Minister’s future.
By the time a sobbing Allegra Stratton announced her resignation a few hours later, there was no sign her departure or the new inquiry into a party that wasn’t supposed to have happened were defusing the situation.
As always, the problem is not so much the original offence, but how the fall-out is handled. Had the investigation been announced last Wednesday after the story broke in the Daily Mirror, maybe yesterday’s PMQs would have been different.
As it is, even Scottish Tories leader Douglas Ross accepted there had been a party “of sorts”, and yesterday evening Number 10 sources were admitting to a gathering of civil servants and advisers and that someone brought cheese and wine. It might not have been the most swellegant, elegant party, but a party nonetheless.
But while word was going round party circles to batten down the hatches, Mr Ross’s predecessor put the boot in.
“None of this is remotely defensible,” tweeted Ruth Davidson. “Today's ‘we'll investigate what we've spent a week saying didn't happen and discipline staff for rules we continue to say weren't broken’ was pathetic.”
The get-out appears to be the 2020 Health Protection Regulations, which permitted an organisation to hold a gathering on its own premises if precautions were taken. But as a Prime Ministerial broadcast had told people not to gather, in the court of public opinion the verdict is guilty.
As the party was neither attended nor organised by Mr Johnson, resignation seems far-fetched, but perhaps remembering that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was found to have misled the Scottish Parliament but is still in her job, Mr Ross said he should go had he similarly misled MPs.
What is not in doubt is that at a time of mounting concerns about high public spending and taxation, inflation and immigration policy, not to mention HS2 and now Afghanistan, the UK Government needs to demonstrate grip.
The trick Nicola Sturgeon pulls off most weeks is appearing to have grip when she has none as policy after policy fails. It’s a skill Mr Johnson should learn.
- John McLellan is a Conservatives councillor on Edinburgh City Council.