Boris Johnson has built his political career on being the clown, the comedian, the Latin-quoting, living embodiment of a character from a P.G. Wodehouse novel.
Sincerity doesn’t come naturally to him. Contrition even less so.
He was miles out of his comfort zone at Prime Minister’s Questions today (12 January), and he looked it.
Knowing that he couldn’t possibly avoid addressing the issue of last May’s Downing Street party, he started with a carefully scripted apology.
But it was an apology that attempted to leave him a get-out-of-jail-free card. “Number 10 is a big department,” he said, “with the garden as an extension of that office.”
He added that he was only in attendance for “25 minutes” and believed it was a “work event”.
Yet even if, “with hindsight”, he regrets his brief bout of partying at a time of national lockdown, this apology sounded incredibly half-hearted, given the context.
Up stepped Sir Keir Starmer, who appeared to strike a chord with the nation by describing the “pathetic spectacle of a man who’s run out of road”, and went straight in with the question of whether the Prime Minister would resign (even if Labour has been so reluctant to call for this).
But Johnson stuck desperately to his line: he thought it was a work event, and he had to wait for Sue Gray’s investigation to run its course.
Starmer tried again, referencing some of the statements from MPs who had lost relatives during the pandemic. Again, Johnson prevaricated.
Stepping up for a third time, Starmer referenced previous Tory resignations, asking the PM why he thinks the rules don’t apply to him. Again, Johnson said he “regretted” what happened on “the evening in question” but had to wait for the full enquiry to conclude.
There was uproar when, after Starmer asked the PM why can’t he see that “the public think he’s lying through his teeth”, Johnson replied: “it’s up to the right honourable gentlemen to conduct himself how he wants.” That’s shameless chutzpah of the kind you only get from a background like Johnson’s.
Now turning to the Ministerial Code, Starmer asked him again if he’d resign, to which Johnson merely remarked that “he’s paid to try to remove me from office” before stonewalling again.
With his sixth and final question, Starmer quoted Hannah Brady, who lost her father at the age of 55, “just days before the drinks trolley was being wheeled through Downing Street”. Did the PM understand why it makes her feel sick to think about the way he’s behaved, Starmer asked.
Johnson said that he “sympathised deeply” with Hannah and “people up and down the country”.
He did repeat his apology, but to what effect?
At the beginning of PMQs, Johnson made reference to the “rage” the public felt with him over the lockdown-breaching parties. This is perhaps the only self-aware and well-judged comment he made at the Despatch Box today.
He may not have been in jester mode, but he’ll need to do far more to win round both the public and his own backbenchers.
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