This morning Julia Gillard took her place in the witness box at the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. It did not go as her political enemies might have hoped.

Counsel Assisting Jeremy Stoljar SC was tasked with trying to trip up Gillard — you cannot have the job of examining a Prime Minister and be seen to squib it — but he came out of their encounter decidedly second best.

The case involves shady dealings involving the Australian Workers Union in 1992, when Gillard’s ex-boyfriend Bruce Wilson established a secret “slush fund” with self-confessed bagman Ralph Blewitt. The fund, the Workplace Reform Association, was used to issue sham invoices to the Theiss construction company for safety services for a Perth project, none of which were provided. Gillard is involved because when she was at law firm Slater and Gordon, she provided legal advice for Wilson about setting up the WRA; she has denied any wrongdoing.

During this morning’s session Stoljar tried to establish whether Gillard had written copy for an advertisement that had to be placed for the incorporation of the WRA. After she answered that she didn’t think she had, Stoljar attempted to press:

“The likelihood is that you advised Mr Wilson of the necessity of placing the public advertisement?”

“Mr. Stoljar I’m giving evidence in a royal commission, I’m not prepared to guess.”

The press room chuckled. Stoljar paused for a moment, and Neil Clelland QC, counsel for Gillard, interjected:

Clelland: “I’m sure it hasn’t escaped Mr Stoljar’s recollection, I think Mr Blewitt gave some evidence about this matter on 12 May 2014, pages 16 and 17 of the transcript, and he gave some evidence about who had drafted the advertisement, if that’s of assistance to our learned friend. He nominates Mr Wilson.”

Stoljar: “This witness is giving her recollection of events, and I’m not sure if it assists –”

Clelland: “I thought if Mr Stoljar was interested in who actually drafted it, there was some evidence of it.”

Mr Stoljar did not appreciate the help.

Stoljar: “I put on record the interjection was quite inappropriate.”

More laughs.

How did it come to this? It’s largely down to Michael Smith, the former 2UE drive presenter, who essentially lost his job over pursuing this story in 2011. He has spent his time since then feeding questions to talkback radio colleagues and News Corp allies to keep the story alive, with his encyclopedic knowledge of the case.

He had become a friend to Gillard’s chief accuser, Ralph Blewitt, and dedicated himself to his website. Its sole purpose was and remains the pursuit of Gillard’s scalp, with the most comprehensive resource on the Gillard/AWU accusations. With 90,000 hits a day, the site accepts public donations to keep Smith afloat.

But Smith was unlikely to have got what he wanted out of this morning’s appearance. The wind has long gone out of the sails of this inquiry.

In time, those who have believed the conspiracy will perhaps wish they had not had their day.