The Financial Times has the scoop: Christopher Geidt is set to clear Boris Johnson over the Downing Street flat redecoration – though his report will criticise Prime Minister’s conduct.
Downing Street’s nightmare was that Geidt would say that Johnson had misled him, if not actually lied, during the course of his investigation – and then quit as the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests.
The resignation of a second holder of the post – Alex Allen resigned in the wake of his report into Priti Patel – could have brought other actors into the story.
The Electoral Commission could have re-opened its investigation. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards might have swooped in (and may perhaps still). It was not inconceivable for the police to be drawn in.
This combination of events, Number Ten feared, could have helped to spark a ballot of confidence in the Prime Minister’s turbulent leadership.
There may be still be booby traps in the redecoration for Johnson. But the Financial Times story, backed up by other papers this morning, and indeed by what I was told yesterday, suggests a potential path to recovery.
First, he has to escape being held directly responsible by Sue Gray for the Downing Street “staff gatherings”, as her investigation calls what everyone refers to as the Number Ten parties.
These appear to have done more to dent the Conservatives’ poll ratings than the decoration saga – since they more directly provoke the charge of “one law for them and another for us”.
Such a verdict is likely (though not certain). Having slipped past these two rocks in the water – Geidt and Gray – the Prime Minister would then have to negotiate an even bigger obstacle from voters’ point of view: Omicron.
If it doesn’t incapacite the NHS through staff shortages, and the service then avoids a January pile-up caused by the variant, Delta, flu, seasonal illnesss and blocked beds, he will claim that his minimal restrictions worked.
The backbench rebels who voted against them will counter that they weren’t needed, and that voluntary action would have contained Omicron anyway.
But the Prime Minister will be able to point to a stupendous surge in vaccinations – the UK is currently second in Our World in Data’s booster league table – and, by a combination of luck and judgement, may yet end up in a better place.
He would then have a chance to regain the political initiative. This cycle of rebuff and rebound is Johnson’s speciality. It was last seen before the original deployment of vaccines during the winter.
The difference is that the Conservatives were still narrowly ahead in the polls. Now they are further behind. The question that follows is whether the Prime Minister is damaged goods.
I believe that voters are not even beginning to weigh up Labour as a serious electoral proposition, and that the situation remains fluid.
Since recent years have given us David Cameron, UKIP, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn’s near hit in 2017, the Brexit Party and Johnson himself, experience suggests that surprises are now the norm.
Yes, Gray may prang the Prime Minister yet. Or the NHS plunge into a media-declared crisis next month. But the Geidt news offers Johnson a tantalising glimpse of better times.
I’ll write more when Parliament re-opens next week about how he might achieve them, during the run-up to local elections in May that are unlikely to be as good for the Conservatives as this year’s were.
For the moment, a single point will do. Geidt is not a Platonic Guardian in the classic Sir Humphrey mode (or in the modern form, I would argue, of his successors).
He is a former soldier who served later as Private Secretary to the Queen. And will not have wanted to be put in the position of sparking a chain reaction of events that ended in the defenstration of a Prime Minister.
The Conservative Party and its hinterland spent the best part of a decade debating whether or not a Cabinet conspiracy of “wets” had toppled Margaret Thatcher.
The claim that an Establishment Blob terminated Johnson, in these post-truth times and in the wake of Brexit, would have wider resonance.
This morning, it looks as though that wounding prospect may have been avoided. But the body of unelected officials with inchoate powers over people we elect is an accident waiting to happen.
These include: the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests, and the Director-General of Propriety and Ethics.
Not to mention the Electoral Commission. Some of these posts are governmental, some electoral, others Parliamentary and others both.
But at least in the first case, and perhaps in the other two, the Prime Minister should start mulling how to slim down this overweight mass into better shape.