Can Boris Johnson be saved by his 'no one told me it was a rule-breaking party' excuse?

'It's over': MPs are increasingly disillusioned with the prime minister as he fights to save his premiership, ITV News Political Editor reports

The prime minister revealed on Tuesday, during an interview with broadcasters, his testimony to Sue Gray, who he gave the mandate to investigate potentially unlawful parties held during lockdown at 10 Downing Street. "This is what I said to the inquiry," he confirmed. So what is his "this"? His main claim - which his own MPs tell me is plain weird - is that he didn't do anything wrong in going to what in normal English would be called "a party" on the evening of May 20 2020 because "nobody told me and nobody said this was something that was against the rules".

The point is - and I feel foolish even saying this to you, because it is so obvious - everybody in the country knew parties were banned at the time. And since Boris Johnson was the main author of the rules designed to shield us from Covid-19, he more than anyone else should have known parties were not just discouraged, but illegal. But apparently - and in his interview he says this repeatedly - he can't be blamed either for the party happening or for his attendance at it because "nobody said to me this is an event that is in breach of the rules". So what on earth is poor Sue Gray supposed to make of this? Does the prime minister think she'll let him off because he wishes to be seen as the equivalent of a five-year-old who could not be expected to know that booze plus sausage rolls equals party, unless someone spells it out to him? That doesn't seem credible. And another thing. When he talked about the party, on three separate occasions he talked about stepping out into "that garden" - never "my" garden. It sounded so odd. Because he is talking about his own garden. So why is he repudiating any personal claim on the Downing Street garden? It is possible he is clutching at the legal straw that if it is a work gathering in a work place - a so-called “work event” - and not a party in his own garden, that could be a defence in law, as I’ve mentioned before.

Even so, Ms Gray will struggle to accept that the prime minister could have thought even for an instance he was at a work event - notwithstanding that guidelines for employers of key workers, who were permitted into offices, say nothing on whether an office booze-up is allowed (such provisions serving no practical point in a country where we all knew parties were banned!). But maybe she will buy his argument that his party-going was not premeditated, whatever his erstwhile chief aide Dominic Cummings swears on oath to the contrary. However, as I said on Monday, there is at least one email from another Downing Street official that reinforces Cummings’s case. That said, even if pre-meditation is disputed, not much changes or is improved for Mr Johnson. He would still be guilty of attending a party, and not closing it down. So I am struggling to see how Ms Gray absolves Mr Johnson from the charges, that he broke important Covid rules, that he and others in Downing Street partied selfishly when millions of Britons suffered hideous privations and that he misled parliament in saying on, December 8, that he was “repeatedly assured…that there was no party and no Covid rules were broken". No surprise then that most Tory MPs tell me the PM is in deep trouble. Most though will probably wait for Ms Gray’s report before deciding whether to throw him out. “It’s common decency,” said one. Would this MP tell me what Ms Gray could realistically say that would keep Mr Johnson in 10 Downing Street? What followed was an uncomfortable silence that would be felt by the prime minister as an omen of oblivion.