It was not the roaring and jeering from Opposition MPs that will have worried Boris Johnson at prime minister's questions but the silence from Conservative MPs who sat expressionless behind him like ranks of frozen corpses.
When he apologised for attending a lockdown-breaking party in the Downing Street garden in May 2020, Labour and the Scottish Nationalist Party heckled and sneered but his own MPs remained utterly still.
To Johnson's right sat Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister he humiliated last September by sacking him as foreign secretary and to his right was Liz Truss, the woman who took Raab's job and now has her eye on the prime minister's. The other front runner to succeed Johnson, chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak, was not in the Commons chamber due to a prior engagement in the less sulphurous environment of a pharmaceutical factory in Devon.
“I know that millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months. I know the anguish that they have been through, unable to mourn their relatives, unable to live their lives as they want or to do the things they love. And I know the rage they feel with me or with the government I lead when they think that in Downing Street itself, the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules,” said Johnson.
Conservative MPs know about the public’s anguish and rage too because they have been deluged with messages from constituents for whom news of the Downing Street party triggered memories of the suffering they endured under the inhumane conditions of lockdown in the early months of the pandemic.
These MPs hoped Johnson would say something they could use as a response to such people, or to those on radio phone-ins describing how they said goodbye to dying relations over FaceTime while the people who made the rules were having a party.
Instead, Johnson said he had not realised that the gathering, to which about 100 Downing Street staff were invited to “bring your own booze” and which featured trestle tables laden with bottles and snacks, was a social event.
“When I went into that garden, just after six on the 20th of May, 2020, to thank groups and staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later, to continue working, I believed implicitly that this was a work event,” he said.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said the explanation was so ridiculous as to be offensive, describing the prime minister as a man without shame who had run out of road. If Johnson was hoping for support from his backbenchers, he was disappointed as those Conservatives on the order paper to ask questions spoke about washing machines, park runs, abolishing the BBC licence fee – anything but his predicament.
In the tea rooms, lobbies and corridors afterwards, the talk was of little else and a view was beginning to settle on Westminster that the "greased, albino piglet", as David Cameron described Johnson, may be cornered at last.