Has the establishment finally decided to move against Boris Johnson? Given the intensity of the crisis facing the Prime Minister, you hardly need to be a conspiracy theorist to think that some of its leading lights might take their chance to help bring down the country’s ultimate anti-establishment politician.
The Prime Minister may have granted himself a stay of execution pending the findings of Sue Gray’s much anticipated "partygate" report – but Wednesday’s developments suggest that there is only so much power the most powerful man in the country can wield.
Take the strength of the briefing around Ms Gray’s desire to see her investigation published in full. In theory, it should be in a Prime Minister’s gift to decide when and how an inquiry he has called should report back to the public.
Yet suggestions by Cabinet Office sources of a “row” with No 10 over whether the full report or just a summary should be published may have succeeded in boxing Mr Johnson into a corner. Forget all talk of the price of Carrie Johnson’s wallpaper – “whitewash” is not a term that Downing Street wants attributed to what has been billed as a “comprehensive” analysis of what exactly went on. Yet now, even if No 10 had a legitimate argument for keeping certain details out of the public eye, it risks being tainted by the stench of a suspected cover-up.
Westminster whispers about who has contributed to the report also served to fuel suspicions that the Civil Service is in no mood to cut Mr Johnson any slack.
It has been suggested that his principal private secretary Martin Reynolds, the Cambridge-educated former lawyer who sent an email to No 10 staff on May 20 2020 inviting them to "make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks" in the garden, has been “cooperative” with the inquiry. Despite his loyalty to Mr Johnson, for whom he also worked as principal private secretary when he was foreign secretary, might his apparent eagerness to comply with an inquiry led by one of his own give the Prime Minister cause for concern?
Having faced repeated calls for his own resignation, it would certainly be a turn up for the books if Mr Reynolds, a serious figure who was previously the ambassador to Libya, ended up being saved at the expense of his boss. And what of the other officials in Downing Street? Some of them might have an interest in ensuring that Mr Johnson is the one who takes the flak from Partygate, not them.
Then there is the Speaker of the House of Commons offering to suspend Parliament to allow MPs to “digest” the report when it is finally released, which could potentially deny Mr Johnson a chance to attempt to control the narrative.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle told MPs during points of order that he was committed to ensuring that they get time to read the findings before Mr Johnson takes questions in the chamber. “The Prime Minister has promised to make a statement,” he said. “What I would expect is that members will be able to see the report and I would hope time will be given for members to digest that. I’m more than happy to adjourn.”
Partygate report could wield the final blow
Which brings us to the role of the police in all this. Did the Met really need to make it known that it felt there was no need to delay the report after Commissioner Cressida Dick concluded that the allegations uncovered by the inquiry were serious enough to warrant investigation beyond Ms Gray’s remit?
And none of this is even to mention Ms Gray’s report itself, which may be damning enough to finish off Mr Johnson all on its own.
Clearly, none of these institutions would be responsible for bringing down a Prime Minister who has regularly turned out to be his own worst enemy. If he falls because of Partygate, he will largely have himself to blame. But as Mr Johnson knows only too well, the establishment has never been fond of his idiosyncratic administration.