As a mere scribbler, it pains me to say this but a picture really is worth a thousand words, or in the case of so-called "partygate" a million of them. We all knew that during the pandemic Boris Johnson had attended "gatherings" that might be construed to have breached the lockdown rules that he imposed on the rest of us. Indeed, since he was fined by the Metropolitan Police for one of these events, and did not challenge the fixed penalty notice (FPN), he presumably accepted that he broke the law. We also knew, or could easily imagine, that at these functions the occasional drink was quaffed and a sandwich or two consumed.
But it takes a photograph to show the true nature of the occasion. The sight of the Prime Minister, glass of champagne in hand, toasting his departing press secretary, would in normal times hardly merit a comment. It was just a leaving do of the sort that takes place in offices up and down the land every day of the week.
But, as we all know, these were not normal times. On November 13, 2020 – the date on which the photographs leaked to ITV News were taken – the country had been plunged into another lockdown. For goodness sake (and I enter a personal gripe here), we weren't even allowed to play golf, just two people walking in the open air whacking a ball down the fairway, let alone organise a shindig.
Worse than that, visiting dying relatives in hospitals or care homes or attending funerals was forbidden because of restrictions on numbers. We were just a few weeks away from Christmas, which that year was effectively cancelled for millions of us who could not (lawfully, at least) invite our nearest and dearest round for Yuletide lunch.
Looking at the photograph of Boris with the detritus of what looks suspiciously like a party strewn across the table, alongside his red box, you have to wonder what on earth possessed him to join in or why he did not tell everyone to pack up and go home.
Had he forgotten that just a few days earlier he had gone on television to "urge everybody to work together ... to get the R under control"? Or had the entreaty he made in the Commons the previous week slipped his mind? "I have asked much of the British people: more than any Prime Minister, I believe, has asked of the British people in peacetime. I have to say that the public have responded magnificently and selflessly, putting their lives on hold, bearing any burden, overcoming every obstacle, and tolerating every disruption and inconvenience, no matter how large or small – or inconsistent – so that they could do the right thing by their fellow citizens."
Does that set of leaked photographs suggest that in No 10 they were "doing the right thing by their fellow citizens"? Did it not cross anyone's mind that, while they may have been in a workplace and therefore exempt from the restrictions on numbers, they were acting in a way that was completely at odds with the behaviour expected of the rest of us?
It is irrelevant to say, as many now do, that this was hardly criminal so let's move on and forget about it. True, Mr Johnson did not want to introduce such illiberal measures. But having decided that this was the right course of action, it was incumbent on him and his officials to stick rigidly to the rules.
Not to have done so is an insult to the great majority who scrupulously followed laws that they thought to be daft but were assured were necessary. Given the various gatherings in Downing Street during this period, the people who devised the rules evidently did not think they were that important, otherwise would they not have taken greater care? As they popped open yet another bottle of fizz, we must assume they did not consider themselves to be in mortal danger.
The Sue Gray report is finally expected to be published today to place these events in some context; but Mr Johnson will not be persuaded that what he was involved in amounted to a breach of the rules because it did not constitute a "party" as most people would understand it.
But parties per se were not forbidden. It was large gatherings that were specifically banned. People who had to go into offices to work tended to get on with their tasks and then go home, not carouse late into the evening. The sacrifices we were being asked to endure were not being shared equally. Mr Johnson's difficulty is that he was asked in the Commons whether there was a party in Downing Street on the day on which the photographs were taken and said: "No." This has now become a question of his integrity – whether the Prime Minister deliberately misled MPs.
The report we will be waiting for once Ms Gray's has been published is that from the Commons Committee of Privileges into whether Mr Johnson's denials amounted to a contempt of Parliament. Will the committee accept that he legitimately thought he was within the rules in attending the leaving-do for 15 minutes or so, or will it conclude that he must have known it was questionable behaviour and should have admitted as much, not sought to cover it up?
Mr Johnson can point to the fact that the police did not issue him with a fine for the November 13 event for reasons that are impossible to fathom because we do not know the criteria they used in reaching this decision.
Perhaps the Met was told another FPN for the Prime Minister could bring him down and were reluctant to deliver the coup de grace. Arguably, the police should never have been put in this position in the first place, but we should at least be told why some people were fined for taking part in the same get-together as Mr Johnson but he wasn't.
However damaging Ms Gray's report turns out to be, Tory MPs have already decided this is not enough to seek the Prime Minister's removal, not least when no obvious alternative leader has yet emerged. But the prospect of a brace of by-election defeats next month followed by a Committee of Privileges finding against Mr Johnson will concentrate minds and change the dynamic again.
This episode is inflicting serious damage not only on the Tory party but also on the country's institutions, from the police to the Civil Service and Parliament itself. Conservative backbenchers, even Cabinet ministers, need to decide soon how long they can let it go on.