Partygate back in the news
Sunak's NI deal overshadowed
In a salutory reminder of how fast political discourse moves in the 21st-century, Friday's post in our Politics Live blog already looks dated.
One week after Rishi Sunak's best achievement to date as Prime Minister, in changing the Northern Ireland Protocol, the story has been usurped by Boris Johnson and his supporters.
Does this undermine Partygate charges?
Mostly, this revolves around the proposed appointment of Sue Gray as Chief of Staff to Labour leader Keir Starmer. The story dominated the Sunday morning politics TV shows with Tory MPs and media allies claiming it proves the 'Partygate' scandal which brought Johnson down is some sort of 'Deep State' conspiracy.
Gray, you may recall, investigated the illegal lockdown parties in Downing Street and wrote a damning report.
Where to start with this nonsense? First, Gray has been a senior civil servant during the 13 years of Tory rule. If she is a Labour supporter, it can't have affected her job too much or they would have removed her.
Nor would scores of Tory MPs have toured media studios, proclaiming her neutrality and credibility as a reason to reserve judgement when the scandal initially broke (seven months before Johnson left office). There is loads of footage.
Johnson supporters are rewriting history
Second, 'Partygate' didn't bring Johnson down. When the Sue Gray report was published, many MPs who had promised to wait for it decided that, actually, it wasn't so important.
It destabilised him, for sure, but the straw that broke the camel's back was 'Pinchergate'. Previously loyal MPs had enough of being asked to lie for Johnson.
All of this said, I did initially consider Starmer's decision to announce the Gray appointment to be a huge unforced error. The conspiracy theories were inevitable. Why feed them?
However after watching the Johnson camp go berserk over the weekend, it could be that Team Starmer have played a brilliant chess move.
It probably is merely a helpful coincidence but the good news for the Tories has been subdued, replaced by this highly dubious narrative.
Instead of being able to move on from the Johnson era, the public are being constantly reminded of the issue which first made millions abandon their support for this government.
Will a smear campaign work?
The Johnson machine has already tried targeting Starmer. First by smearing him with regards Jimmy Saville and then with the twice debunked claims of wrongdoing over 'Beergate'. Note the Westminster journalists who were most keen to press that smear are all over the Sue Gray 'scandal'.
This isn't to say Starmer won't be damaged at all by any of this. Drip, drip conspiracy theories work in undermining trust. Already, his opponents are blaming Gray for blocking the Tory plan to block gender reform. They are determined to construct a narrative that damns Starmer as a 'woke, liberal lefty lawyer, out of touch with the average voter'.
Plenty will buy it. If it were my job, I would definitely have advised against announcing such an appointment.
Nevertheless, intentionally or not, it is hard to see this as ultimately helpful to Sunak. The divisions between his and Johnson and supporters are once again laid bare.
The former PM sees a route back to power. Negative stories, revealing his Honours List appointments (including his father), are in the press. I'm sure that is no accident.
Few are now discussing the progress made over the Northern Ireland Protocol and improved relations with our allies and neighbours. It makes me wonder if Sunak's internal opponents will overshadow other achievements and big announcements all the way through to the next general election.
The Conservative Party appears to be fundamentally, perhaps irreversibly divided. The right wing populism sparked by Brexit has twisted minds, even in a party famous for its shrewd electoral strategy. The parallels with Trump and his MAGA army are unmistakable.
As with Trump, there is a steadfast refusal on the part of Johnson's supporters to accept the demise of their hero. Faced with mountains of evidence showing him to be toxic to a clear majority of ther electorate, they simply dismiss polls.
Whether they planned this or not, Labour must be laughing, cheering Johnson's potential return and Sunak's discomfort.
Follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.