Will he fess up? If it will get him out of a tight corner, and it’s the only way left to survive, well of course he will.
The friendlier elements of the press, reflecting his remaining allies in the Tory party, have already given him the cue. If Boris Johnson confesses and says sorry, is visibly contrite, puts on his crestfallen face and sheds a tear, then we can all “move on” and forget this silly “partygate” business. It’s probably not going to impress the public, but it can buy him some more time, and that could still prove crucial.
One of Johnson’s survival techniques, honed over many decades since his time at Eton and through successive turbulent personal relationships, is knowing that any anger directed towards him will inevitably subside with the passage of time, after the people he’s let down have calmed down. From the housemasters and newspaper editors to the city of Liverpool and wives and girlfriends, from the Speaker of the Commons to Lord Geidt, a sheepish face and an “unreserved” and “humble and sincere apology” can sometimes do the trick, temporarily, especially if followed by a brief period of good behaviour.
In reality, there’s really not much choice left to him. The stonewalling has just become ridiculous – not being able to say if he was at a party until an inquiry led by the civil servant Sue Gray tells him whether he was there or not, which she will advise him after she has asked him whether he was there in the first place.
So, a classic Johnsonian tactical retreat is now underway. The skilful evasion will run as follows. First, he will make a solemn statement to the Commons immediately before Prime Minister’s Questions to spike Labour’s guns. He needs to pre-empt their attacks about whether he was at the party or not; and he needs to deflect questions about whether he lied to parliament. In his own statement he can control the narrative, and, mostly, get listened to in silence.
This account of his activities will be an interesting cocktail. There will still be some quasi-legal attempt to square the party with the rules. Yes, he attended, though maybe not for long; it was in a workplace, technically; work things were discussed; there was social distancing; they were all key workers; the garden is a mere extension of the office complex, and not a public park; it was outdoors and thus safer; that he and Carrie were anyway in their own private garden of their home.
Perhaps it was the guidance that was being broken not the law, he may suggest. He will attempt to justify his own behaviour by reference to what we now know about the virus, and what the rules were like under later, more relaxed restrictions. He needs to do all that to confuse the issues and create justifications for what he later stated in parliament, because, as Keir Starmer reminded him a few weeks ago, a minister misleading the Commons is a resigning matter by convention and under the ministerial code.
Second comes the non-legal defence, leaving mere rules and quibbling to one side. This is where Johnson portrays himself like some soft-hearted patrician, unable to say no to his suffering, exhausted, dedicated staff, deprived of their human right to a family life. When one of them (ie the fall guy Martin Reynolds) suggested they needed a break, how could good old Boris refuse them their little respite? It’s not a workhouse. A reward, in other words, for their work on the vaccines and, erm, the test and trace system and supplying personal protective equipment, sort of, and organising the NHS and military response, and all that. The assorted spads, spinners and bureaucrats will be made to sound like the pilots in the Battle of Britain in 1940. The motto? Per Adua Ad AstraZeneca. How could anyone deprive them of a glass of Prosecco and a pork pie in their finest hour?
All that having been pleaded, then the unreserved, abject, though unfelt, apology will follow, that is for any upset people understandably feel, whatever happened, and for any behaviour that will be later found by the Gray inquiry and/or the police to be wrong.
In the meantime, the prime minister will declare, it would be quite inappropriate to second guess their proceedings and so no further details will be forthcoming, so there’s no point in Starmer asking, and everyone in the media can shut up about it. The Labour leader will constantly be referred to the statement just made: “Why doesn’t the leader of the opposition ask me about our fantastic vaccine booster programme?” It will be a fine piece of drama, good enough for a Golden Globe, if they were still going. There will be tears of frustration for Labour.
Johnson will do and say anything to get himself out of trouble. Obviously. It wouldn’t be surprising if he smuggled a small onion into the chamber, kept in his jacket pocket, and squeezed at appropriate moments to heighten the drama and moisten the prime ministerial eye. Head bowed, hair combed, grim visaged, he will soldier on through his ordeal, knowing it will all be over fairly quickly; he will just have to take his punishment before he gets back for a decent lunch.
No jokes about Ian Blackford’s croft, no “Captain Hindsight” insults, no gaffes. Just get through it. If some angry SNP backbencher demands he bowed low and prostrated himself in penance like a disgraced Japanese senior industrialist, then Boris Johnson will hit the carpet and happily oblige. Like taking six of the best in the headmaster’s study, or a lecture from a wronged partner or irate editor, he’s been there before. The pain will be temporary, and well worth it. He’ll be humiliated, but he won’t mind about that because he’ll still have his job.
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Lying to the house, and to the public? Look carefully at the precise formulations, and you’ll discover nuance and wriggle room, and supposed honest mistakes and misunderstandings about lockdown rules – but nonetheless “forgive me, forgive me, forgive me”.
Johnson will try to turn things such that he looks like the victim, assailed by those who cannot understand the loyalty and compassion towards his staff that drove him to be so generous to them. It will be a “human” defence. No greater love hath man than this, that he should risk his reputation for probity for his friends. Have you got something in your eye?
It might work on the more gullible members of the Conservative parliamentary party, and their instinctively supportive media allies, but not so much the public. They won’t be in the chamber witnessing at first hand Johnson’s hammy performance, but will see clips later on through the colder channels of news sites, television and social media.
This isn’t a routine political scrape Johnson has got himself into, like the Owen Paterson business, the prorogation scandal, the flat refurb or some fresh Brexit cock-up that gets forgotten in a week or two. This is emotional, personal stuff. It’s about Covid. It’s about 150,000 needless deaths. Everyone had someone who went through a rough time in lockdown, and their stories are infinitely more harrowing and real than anything the PM can come up with about his wretched party. Deaths in the family or cancelled weddings or being furloughed tend not to be forgotten. Johnson won’t be forgiven.
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