Being Boris

Johnson still expects Tory MPs to love him

Artillery Row

There was no other woman. OK there was, but it wasn’t what it looked like. Well, it was what it looked like, but it was just a one-night stand. I must admit it lasted two years, but she meant nothing to me. Boris Johnson’s evolving party defence has now reached the “do you really want to end our marriage over this?” stage. He’s sorry, really sorry. Things will be different. He can change.

Goodness, how the prime minister grovelled. He had come to parliament to talk about his party fine, which looks like being the first of several, and to explain that what was happening in Ukraine was much more important. But mainly he had come to abase himself.

The Conservative benches heard all this in silence

We had, beforehand, been offered a variety of defences by his outriders, from “it’s no more serious than breaking the speed limit outside an infant school” to “it’s more like manslaughter than murder” to “he wasn’t lying because he didn’t understand the rules”.  But Johnson himself wasn’t daft enough to try any of those. He may be foolish, but he is not an idiot. He has also had more practice than most of us at pleading for forgiveness. He could see that his one path through was to just take all the anger, keep repeating how sorry he was, and hope that eventually his detractors wore themselves out.

“In all humility,” he began, and the opposition benches laughed. He explained “not by way of mitigation or excuse” that “it did not occur to me then or subsequently that a gathering in the Cabinet Room just before a vital meeting on Covid strategy could amount to a breach of the rules.”

So there it was. He was so focused on Covid that he just plain forgot about Covid. Which of us has not walked into a room with cake and beer and people singing Happy Birthday and our wife (and for some reason no one has ever properly explained, our interior designer) and not thought: “this looks like a party, but it’s in the Cabinet Room, so it must be a work meeting”?

A lot of people have suggested the prime minister is lying about this. There were a few attempts to say so in the chamber, though Speaker Lindsay Hoyle generally shut them down. But Johnson’s explanation has a ring of truth about it, in the sense that it feels perfectly plausible that he didn’t think the rules applied to him. That has, after all, long been the problem.

The Conservative benches heard all this in silence. The Cabinet were still. Tory MPs had packed into the chamber, but seemed to have gravitated to the furthest parts from their leader. Kit Malthouse peeked round the Speaker’s Chair, like a six-year-old watching the Daleks from behind the sofa.

On the prime minister went. “It is precisely because I know that so many people are angry and disappointed that I feel an even greater sense of obligation to deliver on the priorities of the British people.” In a sense, then, perhaps it was a good thing that he’d broken the law, because it was now spurring him on to better deeds. We can only guess at the sense of obligation he’s going to feel towards us at the end of all this. What a lucky country we are.

Keir Starmer decided to go for fury. “What a joke!” he began. Johnson, he said, destroys everything and everyone around him, a point that none of the Cabinet members who have had to defend their leader in recent days looked like they wanted to dispute. Rishi Sunak’s career was, he said, “up in flames”. The chancellor tapped his finger on his leg thoughtfully.

He’s just a prime minister, standing in front of a Conservative Party

Starmer called the prime minister “dishonest” and the Tories, as is their wont, expressed outrage. Of all the hills someone might choose to die on, “you can’t call Boris Johnson a liar” has got to be the strangest. Hoyle told Starmer to “use appropriate words”, which was a dangerous invitation. Jess Phillips mouthed something that was sadly inaudible. “The prime minister knows what he is,” Starmer replied.

“I apologise once again,” Johnson said in reply, before complaining that Starmer had made “a series of personal attacks on me”, which, given the things the prime minister has said about the Labour leader in the past couple of months, was a bit rich.

It was at this point that Sir Bill Cash rode to the rescue, in the way that only he could. As a legal expert, he felt obliged to point out that someone who pays a fixed penalty notice fine quickly isn’t admitting guilt. So in a way, the prime minister was innocent. I can only urge him to try this one out with voters and see how it goes down on the doorstep.

Of the Tories who spoke, only Mark Harper attacked his leader. “We have a prime minister who broke the laws that he told the country it had to follow, who has not been straightforward about it, and who is now going to ask the decent men and women on the Conservative benches to defend what I think is indefensible,” he said, every word of it unarguable. Johnson, already looking like a heavyweight who has somehow survived to the end of the twelfth round, apologised again.

The real worry for the prime minister lay in the silence. For the final half-hour of his statement, not a single Tory MP asked him a question. It was just opposition MP after opposition MP attacking him.

The contrition didn’t impress them, but then they’re not the target. The question is what his own side makes of it. This, they must know, is the easiest of the parties to defend. Somewhere in the mix is a wine-fuelled Abba-thon. Are they ready to forgive that as well? In the end, he’s just a prime minister, standing in front of a Conservative Party, asking it to give him five or six more chances. Let’s face it, they probably will.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover