Is Boris Johnson really this bad at saying sorry? He should’ve had enough practice by now

Have all the jobs from which he’s been sacked for lying, all the mea culpas in the various marital homes, not prepared him better for this moment?

Tom Peck
Wednesday 25 May 2022 16:03
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<p>His act of contrition was as brief as it was shallow</p>

His act of contrition was as brief as it was shallow

Arguably, it’s important to remember that while Downing Street partied, most of us weren’t burying our parents in a funeral that could only be shown on Zoom. We weren’t nurses on Covid wards, still, years later, unable to cope with the horrors we witnessed. And thank goodness for that.

Most of us haven’t got a clue what we were doing on 13 November 2020, or on 16 April 2021 or on any of the other days in question in Sue Gray’s finally published report. Because we were sitting at home, bored far beyond tears, watching the days and weeks and months and years of our lives mush into a great ball of nothing. Millions of people lived vicariously through their pot plants.

Most of us weren’t working in Downing Street. So most of us didn’t get a chance to get drunk with our work colleagues til 4.20 in the morning. We didn’t chuck red wine up the office walls. We didn’t abuse security staff and cleaning staff, for having the temerity to quietly point out that we were very clearly breaking the laws which, for an added twist, we had been making up ourselves. And then we didn’t, at the end of it all, send texts to each other saying: “We seem to have got away with it.”

Maybe it’s because we weren’t that lucky, but certainly it’s because we weren’t that venal or that stupid. It’s hard to pick out which line is the most damning. At one point in the report, the ethics adviser, Helen MacNamara, arrives with a karaoke machine, an absurd act that has caused her to leave her role in the civil service for a much more lucrative job in the private sector, working for the Premier League.

There are the WhatsApp messages relating to the logistical difficulties of setting up their BYOB party in the Downing Street garden at the exact time at which journalists would be leaving the Downing Street press conference, during which they had been broadcasting clear instructions to the nation, telling them not to do the exact thing they were about to do. And they knew it.

Someone actually texted Martin Reynolds, the prime minister’s most senior aide, with the words: “The press conference will probably be finishing around that time, so helpful if people can be mindful of that as speakers and cameras are leaving, not walking around waving bottles of wine etc.”

Reynolds has also lost his job as a consequence, but is already being fitted up for an extremely senior ambassadorship. None of this shocks any more. We have become wearied by it. Nor should it shock that the prime minister demonstrably doesn’t care.

As he shuffled into the House of Commons, his backbenchers let out a cheer that almost felt ironic. It was the kind of noise you might expect to hear when a fourth former drops his tray in a public school dining hall.

By this point, it should be clear that whether Johnson broke the law has ceased to matter. He did, that’s a matter of fact, and he doesn’t care. If anything matters any more, it’s whether he has lied to the House of Commons (which he very clearly has), so arguably he should have known better than to save his biggest whopper to the last.

“I apologise,” he said. Later he would add: “I am humbled.”

It is boringly predictable even to have to type out that within seconds of being humbled he was dropping gags about “Sir Beer Korma” to the titillation of the braying wall of tits behind him. He could hardly have been less humbled. His act of contrition was as brief as it was shallow.

It was seconds before he was back to his execrable worst, his tiresome drivel about Starmer, pomposity having been punctured, before he was accusing Starmer of “running the country down” when what he was doing was pointing out Johnson’s own staggering ineptitudes. We’ve seen and heard it all before and he will never change. It’s all he’s got.

Nor, as a point of fact, was he even the least bit sorry. In private, Johnson continues to maintain that he’s done nothing wrong in any of this. But you would still imagine a liar of his capacity would somehow be able to make a better job of pretending to be sorry when he demonstrably isn’t. Have all the jobs from which he’s been sacked for lying, all the mea culpas in the various marital homes, not prepared him better for this moment?

Is he really, to be blunt, this bad? To which the answer, yet again, is yes. His greatness as a liar can be measured only in capacity rather than proficiency. To lie well, one has to be able to draw on a reserve, however small, of genuine contrition.

So it was telling, if not surprising, that Johnson began his short mea culpa by pointing out the number of nights, during the pandemic, on which there had not been parties – six hundred and something as compared to the “eight” on which there were. (This number, too, was untrue.)

Having had seven months to come up with something better than this, his next observation was about the square footage of the building in question, which was offered in order to explain how impossible it was for him to singlehandedly police the building in its entirety, an entirely unreasonable expectation that no one has ever made of him. Johnson’s excuse for being photographed attending parties, drink in hand, is that the wider building in which they occurred is extremely large.

With regard to the photo of himself, raising a glass from a booze-filled table in front of booze-filled staff to toast a departing colleague, he offered the following: “Attending leaving drinks is one of the essential duties of leadership.”

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He was, he was saying in entirely undisguised terms, proud of the picture. It had been the right thing to do, in the middle of a pandemic in which he made parties illegal, to round up the team for a nice little piss-up for which attendance would later cause junior staff to be investigated and fined by the police – but not him.

The consequences of the Sue Gray report will, at least in the short term, be zero. There are, at the time of writing, 359 Tory MPs (a stipulation that has to be added as there is usually an hour or so between these words being typed and their appearing online, a window of time far too large to assume that another one won’t be done for some kind of sex crime or other and have to stand down). And of those 359, there are not 54 among them who consider the prime minister breaking the law while in office, and demonstrably lying about it in the Commons, to be sufficient to remove their leader from office.

Johnson’s “strategy”, if it can be so called, is as tried and tested as they come. For seven months, it has “not been appropriate to comment on an ongoing inquiry” – and now that inquiry is concluded it is, sure as night follows day, “time to move on”.

Johnson’s problem, however, has not moved on. His problem is that the voters can see there’s a liar and a criminal running the country, they’re not very happy about it and they absolutely haven’t moved on. The only aspect that continues to mystify is that his MPs have still not worked out that the only way to “move on” is to move him on.

The trouble is, most of them continue to think that, even after all this, he’s the best they’ve got. And even more troublingly, they might very well be right.

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