When is an apology not an apology?
When a party is not a party. When a garden is an office. When lockdown means a lock-in. When your presence was merely a prelude to an absence. When saying sorry doesn’t mean you were wrong. When black-and-white is really (Sue) Gray.
On Wednesday, Boris Johnson finally spoke publicly after a leaked email proved that a “bring-your-own-booze” party was held on May 20, 2020, in the Downing Street garden at a time when the rest of the country was under strict lockdown.
In one of television’s most anti-climactic revelations ever, the prime minister told the House of Commons that he was at the “event” but only for 25 minutes, and only to thank people, and anyway, he didn’t realise it was a party and technically all of the rules were obeyed.
But yeah, okay. He gets that people are mad. His bad. (Or is it their bad for not understanding that the event “could be said, technically, to fall within the guidance”). Only Sue Gray, the senior civil servant investigating the gathering and series of other “events”, really knows, it seems.
Only Sue Gray can rule on whether or not the prime minister was at the party, whether it was a party, whether it broke any rules, and whether Johnson should resign.
To be fair, Johnson did apologise – how could he not after the wave of pained outrage that swept the country after the publication of the email sent by his principal private secretary, inviting up to 100 staffers to “socially distanced” drinks in the Downing Street garden “to make the most of this lovely weather”?
But, fittingly, with a man for whom the devil really is in the detail and therefore to be avoided at all costs, Johnson’s apology was all about how things seemed; not about what things actually were. He said he understood people’s rage “when they think that in Downing Street itself the rules were not being properly followed by the people who make the rules.”
It’s hardly a full admission of guilt – he does not say that the rules were broken, rather that the British public might “think” that the rules were not being followed. Essentially, Johnson tried to portray himself as someone who had made an error of judgment – not someone who attended a party in full knowledge that it broke lockdown rules.
“As I said to the House, I believe that the events in question were within the guidance and were within the rules, and that was certainly the assumption on which I operated,” he said.
The words will resonate with any parent whose teenager has rocked up at 3 am, saying, ‘But I’m sure you told me my curfew was 4 am. You did. You’re old. You just can’t remember.”
It was all too much for Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who was finally driven to call for Johnson’s resignation, slating the prime minister as a “man without shame” who had run out of road.
“The only question is: will the British public kick him out, will his party kick him out, or will he do the decent thing and resign?” Starmer said, before cheekily using reported speech to say what everyone outside the House of Commons is saying but the kind of thing you cannot say within “this place”.
“Can’t the prime minister see why the British public think he is lying through his teeth?” he thundered.
Chris Bryant, a Labour MP, took up the refrain. “How stupid does the prime minister think the British people are? So, the prime minister didn’t spot that he was at a social event. That’s the excuse, isn’t it? Come off it,” he said.
“The worst of it is he’s already managed to completely destroy Allegra Stratton’s career, he’s tarnished the reputation of Lord Geidt, and now he’s making fools of every single MP who cheered him earlier, every single one who goes out on the radio and television to defend this shower of shenanigans. Would it not be absolutely despicable if, in the search for a scapegoat, some junior member of staff ends up losing their job, but he kept his?”
Johnson’s job may yet be in the balance. It all depends on whether Tory MPs think he is damaged beyond repair. There are already signs of revolt, it seems, with veteran MP Sir Roger Gale saying he’d written a letter to the 1922 Committee, requesting a leadership challenge. A vote of no confidence would be triggered if 54 letters are sent.
And all the while, the country’s real and manifold problems get pushed from the front pages as this particularly unedifying version of Survivor continues. With Johnson’s teenage dramatics sucking all the oxygen out the air, we are losing sight of the businesses struggling to cope with Brexit, of families crushed under a cost of living crisis fuelled by tax rises and credit cuts, and of the drift towards authoritarianism found in a slew of bills, including the Nationality and Borders Bill and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
Just before Johnson stepped up to the podium to talk about parties, the High Court ruled that the government’s use of a “VIP lane” for suppliers of personal protective equipment during the pandemic was illegal, in a case brought by the Good Law Project and EveryDoctor.
This kind of behaviour is a much more serious threat to the functioning of a transparent democracy than torrid tales of illicit parties but, to quote Trevor Noah’s Daily Show, Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That because we are too caught up in a psychodrama that has us questioning how much cheese makes a party and whether 25 minutes is actually enough time to realise a gathering is a party or an “event”.
The danger is that Johnson and his party continue to reshape the world in their image, chipping away at our freedoms and certainties as we stare transfixed at the noisy spectacle in the main ring of this political circus.
When is an apology not an apology?