“It did not occur to me then or subsequently that a gathering in the cabinet room just before a vital meeting could amount to a breach of the rules.” That was the substance of the prime minister’s most recent apology, four months after the apologies began, all of which have calculatedly avoided the matter at hand.
This one involves the prime minister stating, yet again, that when his wife and his interior designer came into the cabinet room with a birthday cake and a four pack of beer, at a time at which indoor socialising was banned, it didn’t occur to him that any of the laws he made himself were being broken.
Very obviously, nobody believes that. Which leads to the curious reality in which, according to a recent poll, the word the public most closely associates with the prime minister is “liar”, yet that word cannot be levelled at him in the House of Commons.
What has very obviously occurred to him is that it is necessary for this risible nonsense to pass his lips, in order to sidestep the clear fact that he has misled the Commons – a transgression that requires his resignation.
There are, we are led to believe, further fines to come. One is likely to involve his attending a bring-your-own-booze party in his own garden. Another involves a party in his own flat. If, or rather when, these fines materialise, it will still be the case that Johnson has to insist that his claim that “all Covid guidance was followed at all times” inside Downing Street, was made in earnest.
It is mystifying that the Tory party cannot see that the public are not as stupid as their leader requires them to be. On Tuesday morning, the cabinet minister Brandon Lewis had to appear on television, sitting next to a cloud of words the public associate with Johnson. The big one, in the middle, is “liar”. How long is that meant to go on for?
Four months is quite a long time to be faux-shamefacedly apologising for the same thing. His first apology involved pantomime anger at Allegra Stratton. A few days later, she resigned for the crime of being unable to prevent herself laughing in private while pantomiming the defence that Johnson now attempts in earnest.
The longer it has gone on, the more his MPs have felt compelled to embarrass themselves on his behalf. But still the high-water mark has not been reached. The first Tory MP to interject after Johnson had spoken was the now almost entirely fossilised Bill Cash. He was on hand to explain, as only he can, that actually, paying a fixed penalty notice does not infer an admission of guilt. That just because Johnson has paid the fine, and apologised for what he did wrong, he has still done nothing wrong.
Cash achieved the almost unachievable. Johnson was embarrassed on his behalf. He had to stand up and say that he was in no way “seeking to downplay” what had happened. An actual interjection to spare the embarrassment of those trying to defend the indefensible on his behalf. A new low, that, at least at time of typing.
Rishi Sunak arrived with him, and sat next to him throughout, looking like a man who’s spent the last three weeks living out of someone else’s Kia Rio. He’s had a tricky fortnight, what with the green card, the non-dom business but mainly the criminal sanction that’s been levelled against him, too. Then came Starmer’s little jibe, about the “chancellor’s career up in flames”.
Sunak visibly gulped, looking never more like exactly what he is. The head boy, getting his first ever b******ing and being emotionally unable to cope with the idea he might be slightly less than perfect, and anyway it’s all someone else’s fault – which in this case, it actually is. Whatever did he get into politics for? He probably can’t remember but definitely not for this.
For a while now, Starmer and the prime minister’s other critics have liked to point out that anyone who goes near Johnson ends up damaged by him. But even he can’t have expected to be staring upon quite such a visually perfect manifestation of just that.
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Though Cash won by miles, all of his own party’s attempts to defend him were embarrassing. Most took the easy shot, wrapping Johnson’s crimes up in the Ukraine crisis, as Johnson himself had done, with the utmost cynicism, by choosing to give a statement on both simultaneously.
Steve Baker, as is so often the way, warrants special mention. Baker urged the house to show mercy, as his Christian faith compels him to, but asked the prime minister to promise he’d never do anything like it again.
That promise, naturally, was forthcoming, so that should be the end of the matter. The public think Johnson is a liar. But at least they’ve now got it on the record. He has promised that he’ll never again break the temporary lockdown laws that were scrapped long ago.
Never again, at a time when the area in which he is based is in tier 3 lockdown and is therefore subject to the rule of six outdoors but only for exercise, go to a cheese and wine party in his garden. Never again will he have a lawbreaking gathering for his birthday in the cabinet room. Never again will he and his wife belt out Abba classics in their flat, if it is illegal to do so.
And that will do, won’t it? He’ll never do it again. Unless, of course, the transgression Steve Baker had in mind was lying, which he’ll certainly be doing again within a week, but that wasn’t clear, was it? There’s enough ambiguity there, isn’t there? I can style this out for another few days, can’t I? Not really, mate. The crime of lying is not one you can lie your way out of. It could hardly be any clearer already, and the longer this goes on, it will only become more so.