Boris Johnson's grip on power has been pushed to the brink by documented revelations surrounding lockdown events in Downing Street but for weeks each phase of the crisis has been driven by the interventions of a man he sacked more than a year earlier, Dominic Cummings.
Mr Johnson faced the House of Commons on Wednesday after a week of precautious isolation when a member of his own household tested positive for Covid-19. Minutes before he stood up it was announced that Christian Wakeford, a recently elected "Red Wall" MP and one of the 45 new members who conquered previous Labour seats, had defected to the opposition.
An hour earlier his official spokesman was forced to tell reporters that Mr Johnson had not shed tears after a 14-minute grilling by a TV reporter – in which he gulped for breath – on Tuesday. "The story about Boris crying is completely untrue," the spokesman told the daily huddle with the press.
The trigger for the feverish atmosphere in Westminster was a new blog on Tuesday in which Mr Cummings said he would swear on oath that Mr Johnson was told a gathering on May 20 at Downing Street broke the Covid-19 lockdown rules. Martin Reynolds, Mr Johnson's private secretary, had organised the party in the garden but the prime minister said he "implicitly believed" it was a work event at which he spent 25 minutes.
Mr Cummings first recommended newspapers expose the party, without giving full details, last year. It was only when the email invite was leaked last week that the furore consumed Downing St. The former aide, who was being protected from calls to quit over a Covid lockdown trip to North-east England at the time of the May party, said Mr Johnson had been warned.
“Not only me but other eyewitnesses who discussed this at the time would swear under oath this is what happened," he wrote on his blog. "I said to the PM something like: ‘Martin’s invited the building to a drinks party, this is what I’m talking about, you’ve got to grip this madhouse’. The PM waved it aside.”
“The events of May 20 alone, never mind the string of other events, mean the PM lied to Parliament about parties."
Mr Cummings's campaign is gaining traction because the party revelations, including a clutch that took place on the eve of Prince Philip's funeral in 2021, are triggering a massive backlash among the electorate. Mr Johnson admitted on Tuesday that he had personally apologised to Queen Elizabeth about those parties during a time of national mourning.
Mr Wakeford's Bury South was one of 43 Red Wall seats identified as vulnerable to a Conservative collapse in a poll released on Wednesday.
A voter survey by JLPartnersPolls on Wednesday put Labour on 48 per cent and the Conservatives on 37 per cent with Boris Johnson's satisfaction rating down to minus 35 per cent having peaked at 10 per cent favourable last March. Even among voters who supported the UK's exit from the EU in the north, satisfaction has now fallen to minus 20 per cent.
"The Red Wall is looking far more Blue Cliff as far Boris Johnson's ratings are concerned," said Tom Lubbock of the polling group. "The situation for the Conservatives in the Red Wall maybe even worse than our polling suggests. Half the fieldwork took place before the apology to the queen and the latest revelations."
Last week the same polling firm carried out research in the seats that gave Mr Johnson an 80-seat majority in 2019. James Johnson, the former Conservative Party pollster who runs the group, said the allegations were provoking anger among voters.
“It’s the fact that he lied. If he turned round and said 'yep, I’ve done it, I’m sorry', that would have been okay. But he lied. What else has he been lying about?" one Bolton voter told the focus group.
Mr Johnson has asked for time for civil servant Sue Gray to complete a report on the rule-breaking incidents at No 10. The northern voters found that position was evasive. "I think he’s completely lost everyone’s trust,” the Bolton voter said.
That is the raw material that Mr Cummings is pivoting with as he moves to oust the man for whom he was instrumental in bringing to power.
Having laid the traps along the way, Mr Cummings has proved a dangerous foe of the UK leader.