RICHARD LITTLEJOHN: Playing the fool is one thing. Taking the rest of us for fools is quite another. Has Boris Johnson started to dig his own grave?

First rule of politics: when you’re in a hole, stop digging. You don’t send for a JCB and set the controls for the Earth’s core.

But that’s exactly what Boris Johnson did yesterday when he tried to pretend that he’d sacked Matt Hancock on Friday. Foolishly, the Prime Minister didn’t even bother keeping his official spokesman in on the fantasy.

So when BoJo was claiming in Batley and Spen that it was his decision to make Hancock walk the plank, No 10 was still insisting the former Health Secretary resigned of his own volition.

Far from firing Hancock when photographic evidence of his affair with gorgeous, pouting Gina Lollobrigida emerged, Boris’s initial reaction was to issue a statement declaring the ‘matter closed’. The PM’s default instinct was to brazen it out. Why else would he have expressed his ‘full confidence’ in Hancock when the country was howling for his head on a pike?

First rule of politics: when you’re in a hole, stop digging. You don’t send for a JCB and set the controls for the Earth’s core. But that’s exactly what Boris Johnson did yesterday when he tried to pretend that he’d sacked Matt Hancock on Friday

Another rule of politics holds that if you’re going to lie, lie big. But that doesn’t wash when the truth is already out there. By asking us to swallow the fiction that he told Hancock to clear his desk, Boris has hopelessly misjudged the mood of the nation.

People will forgive the occasional porkie, as long as it’s of the little white variety. We expect politicians to be economical with the actualite. It’s what they do. But we draw a line at deliberate attempts to insult our intelligence. And that’s what Boris did yesterday.

I’m not going to revisit every cough and spit of exactly why the hypocrite Hancock had to go. Fleet Street’s monstrous regiment of Glendas have done their worst over the weekend, in spectacular fashion.

Suffice to say that their genuine sense of betrayal is felt in every home in Britain. And it’s not going away in a hurry, as Boris should have realised if he’d tuned in to any of the radio phone-ins on his way up to Yorkshire yesterday.

Maybe he thought that if he claimed to have acted decisively the moment the story broke, he could, er, take back control of the narrative.

Sorry, guv. Too little, too late.

When the first edition of the Sun dropped on Thursday night, Boris should have sent for Hancock and sacked him on the spot.

By the time most people woke up on Friday morning, the main culprit would have left the building.

Maybe he thought that if he claimed to have acted decisively the moment the story broke, he could, er, take back control of the narrative. When the first edition of the Sun dropped on Thursday night, Boris should have sent for Hancock and sacked him on the spot

It may not have been possible to limit the damage, but it would have been a start, as well as the right — the only — thing to do in the circumstances.

Not for the first time, my old friend Trevor Phillips spoke for Britain on his Sky News show when he rounded on Tory minister Brandon Lewis:

‘Next time one of you tells me what to do in my private life, explain to me why I shouldn’t just tell you where to get off?’

Trevor has a very personal reason for his anger, having been unable to give his beloved daughter Sushila a proper funeral because of the Government’s Covid restrictions. Yet here was Hancock, the man who signed off the draconian social-distancing rules, getting up close and personal with his special adviser.

Coming on top of the blatant flouting of the rules by world leaders at the G7 and the special treatment given to European football bigwigs, this was the final straw. One rule for the great and good, etc.

But the paying public are well aware he’s a serial swordsman and couldn’t care less provided it doesn’t interfere with the way he does his job. Pictured: Boris Johnson and his ex-wife Marina Wheeler

Pictured: Boris Johnson and Carrie Johnson in the garden of 10 Downing Street after their wedding in May 2021

But once the anger has subsided, there are still questions to be answered. And it isn’t going to turn out well for Boris.

This goes way beyond the Dominic Cummings Barnard Castle business and the Tory ‘back to basics’ scandals of the 1990s.

The Hancock affair isn’t a re-run of the Whitehall farce, trousers-round-the-ankles antics of former Conservative ministers like Steve ‘Knobber’ Norris and the Mellorphant Man. It goes to the very heart of the way we are governed.

My first reaction, once I’d stopped laughing, was: that’s it, game over. Lockdown is finished. If ministers won’t respect the rules, why should anyone else?

Then I wondered, in the words of the Paul Carrack classic: How long has this been going on?

Clearly this wasn’t simply a ‘moment of madness’. It’s emerged that the affair has been the talk o’ the steamie, as they say in Scotland, for months.

When wasn’t it going on?

So all the time Hancock was ordering us — on pain of prosecution — to keep our distance, not to hug our grannies or make love to anyone outside our immediate household, he was getting hot and heavy with his old university flame — a woman he’d put on the public payroll so he could keep her in close proximity for whenever the fancy took him.

Hancock, however, doesn’t have that luxury. All the time Hancock was ordering us — on pain of prosecution — to keep our distance, not to hug our grannies or make love to anyone outside our immediate household, he was getting hot and heavy with his old university flame 

Westminster is a nest of vipers at the best of times. And even though the bars and tea rooms have been under-populated during the pandemic, word still travels fast.

If even the tea lady at the Department of Health knew about it, it’s inconceivable the information hadn’t reached the ear of the Chief Whip, who would have been duty bound to share it with the Prime Minister. So we are entitled to ask: when did Boris know that Hancock was going over the side?

You’re not going to convince me that he had no idea, or that he was kept in the dark. He’s a journalist, and gossip is part of our stock in trade.

Start peeling back the onion and the real scandal unfolds, especially if it can be proven that the Prime Minister knew his Health Secretary was breaking his own Covid rules yet did nothing about it.

Of course, when it comes to dangerous liaisons, Boris doesn’t have a legover to stand on.

But the paying public are well aware he’s a serial swordsman and couldn’t care less provided it doesn’t interfere with the way he does his job.

Hancock, however, doesn’t have that luxury. For the past 15 months, he’s been laying down the law, literally, threatening us with £10,000 fines and ten years in jail if we refuse to do what he says.

We now discover that, in all probability, throughout that time he was ignoring those self-same rules, conducting an illicit affair with an old girlfriend paid out of the public purse to be his aide.

Boris must have had at least an inkling, yet kept Hancock in post. Loyalty to colleagues is an admirable trait and in most circumstances what politicians get up to in their private lives is their own business.

But indulging a minister who is deliberately deceiving the public, privately breaking hard and fast rules which he himself imposed on others, is indefensible.

If the Prime Minister has known about it for months, the truth will out and his own position will start to look untenable. Maybe that’s why he tried to rewrite the script yesterday. But as a historian, he will be well aware that the first draft has already been written.

Boris has always had an unparalleled ability to paint himself into a corner and walk out shamelessly over the paint.

Playing the fool is one thing. Taking the rest of us for fools, quite another. Was this the weekend he started to run out of road?

During the 2019 election campaign, Boris memorably drove a JCB through a wall of ‘Get Brexit Done’ bricks on his way to a stunning victory.

The JCB he fired up yesterday could well end up digging his own grave.

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