Boris Johnson gave the public a bizarre two-minute monologue on the wonders of Shakespeare as the Covid threat loomed last year – fuelling claims that he was focused on writing a book.
Dominic Cummings is expected to make the accusation – strongly denied by No 10 – that the prime minister skipped crucial meetings because of a money-spinning deadline with a publisher, when he speaks to MPs on Wednesday.
Mr Johnson spent 12 days at the Chevening grace-and-favour estate, in February 2020, having received an advance of close to £100,000 to write ‘The Riddle of Genius’.
Now a recording of his ‘People’s PMQs’ session, on 5 February, has revealed how he mused at length on the bard’s work – despite not having been asked any questions about it.
“What an incredible thing it is to have pictures, contemporaneous pictures, of William Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth,” the prime minister told the public.
“Just imagine he performed in front of her. I mean, we didn’t know this for certain, but it’s almost certain that William Shakespeare will have performed in front of Queen Elizabeth.
“And they say, of course, that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was staged particularly for her.
“I think, you remember, that she liked the character of Falstaff so much, in Henry IV part one and two – where he dies – she said, Shakespeare, give us another Falstaff, give us another Falstaff!”
The prime minister concluded: “Anyway, nobody asked me that question tonight on People’s PMQs – but I’m giving you that information, absolutely free gratis, nonetheless.”
A week later, Mr Johnson left Downing Street for a “working” holiday at Chevening with his partner Carrie Symonds, and would not be seen in public for 12 days.
At the time, medical experts were warning that the coronavirus threat emerging from China could be comparable to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, but he missed 5 emergency Cobr meetings.
He was also wrestling with his divorce from Marina Wheeler, after the family court approved a financial settlement with his wife of 27 years.
On Monday, the prime minister’s spokesman denied he was working on his Shakespeare book in January and February 2020, when the Cobr meetings took place.
“No, the prime minister has been leading the response to this pandemic throughout. That has been his focus,” he insisted.
However, asked whether Mr Johnson has spent any of his time in No 10 writing the book, he replied only: “Not that I am aware of.”
The book was originally due to be published by Hodder & Stoughton in October 2016, close to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
It was delayed when Mr Johnson was made foreign secretary in July 2016, “in light of his new responsibilities”, the publisher said.
It was reported that he was left facing having to repay the advance – having, in 2015, declared two payments worth a total of £98,000 “for book as yet unwritten”.