How No 10 is testing out excuses to enable the PM to escape the Partygate scandal

If the “gatherings” that Boris Johnson “dropped in on” were just “part of his normal working life” and business, for him, continued as usual afterwards; are we meant to assume that this was also common, and acceptable, behaviour amongst senior staff  during lockdown restriction in, for example, our NHS hospitals? Are knees ups, boozy leaving dos and quizzes in between a spot of intensive care, a necessary part of the working day?

It was the government, led by none other than Boris Johnson, who devised and imposed the restrictions on the rest of us. Are they now taking us for fools? – Owl

Elsewhere it has been reported that the number of people contacted by the police is now nearer 90 than 50. 

Boris Johnson insists he can’t “say anything” about his defence in the Partygate scandal while the police investigate him – but, behind the scenes, his aides are singing like canaries.

As the clock ticks down to what looks like an inevitable fixed penalty notice – and enormous pressure for the prime minister to resign – we are being given a fascinating insight into the fightback to come.

Friendly newspapers are being briefed about what are either, depending on your point of view, the clever arguments his lawyers will employ – or their increasingly desperate excuses.

The motive is clear: this is a softening up exercise to try to shift public opinion about what was acceptable behaviour for Mr Johnson, during the lockdowns he imposed, with a none-too-subtle threat to the police tossed in.

So, it has been briefed that Mr Johnson will acknowledge he attended up to 6 rule-busting gatherings the Met is investigating, but will argue they were “part of his working life”.

“For each event, the prime minister will use details in his diary and call logs to highlight that he was present only briefly and that he continued with other work-related events afterwards,” The Times was told.

This defence will apparently cover not just staff leaving parties, but even the ‘ABBA party’ his fiancée Carrie and her mates reportedly held in his own flat, to celebrate Dominic Cummings’ demise.

The sound of ‘The Winner Takes It All’ is said to have boomed through the building, but Mr Johnson – who has, publicly, refused to say if he was in his flat – will tell the police he was there but “working”, we learn.

Most extraordinary is a briefing that his lawyer will argue that – even if he attended illegal parties – he broke no rules if he went back to work immediately afterwards and did not drink excessively.

If Mr Johnson can “prove that he didn’t get drunk and incapacitated” and “has proof” that he then resumed his tasks, there “is a chance” he can mount an effective defence, ITV’s Robert Peston was told.

Meanwhile, slavishly loyal Tory MPs are sent out to argue a fine for breaking Covid rules is no more serious than a speeding ticket, or parking on a red line.

To understand what a seismic shift this is, we need to remember both what Mr Johnson originally told parliament and what broke the rules he brought in.

As a former Tory attorney-general has reminded us, MPs were told there were no parties and that no rules were reached – so, not only the goalposts, but the entire pitch is being uprooted by No 10.

And, as lawyers have repeatedly pointed out, no such thing as a “work event” existed in the lockdown laws. What matters is whether gatherings were “reasonably necessary for work”.

It is clearly hard to argue an event was necessary for work when those attending have been told to “bring your own booze” or ABBA songs are blasting out – so that effort needs to start now.

It is called “rolling the pitch” – preparing people for a message that will otherwise fall on stony ground – and there are still several weeks ahead for more of it.