Who knew Boris would etc etc?

Operation Save Greased Piglet is a-slither


Jacob Rees-Mogg looked ill. His face was pale, like a chap who’s just seen on the club tickertape that the fellow who manages his investments has fled to Paraguay. Next to him Dominic Raab shook his head gently. Rishi Sunak had his hands clasped in his lap as he sat head down, as though in prayer. Priti Patel’s arms were crossed and she stared at a point on the table in front of her. Only Liz Truss looked perky. Travel must suit her.

“I want to say sorry,” Boris Johnson began. “I’m sorry for the things we simply didn’t get right and I’m sorry for the way that this matter has been handled.” Apologies from Johnson are rare, and should be enjoyed, but we would quickly learn exactly how sincere this one was. “It’s no use saying that this or that was within the rules, or that people were working hard,” the prime minister explained, as though he had not been saying exactly that for weeks. As though, in fact, he had only been left unable to offer these excuses because Sue Gray’s report had explicitly rejected them.

For weeks Johnson and his proxies had been assuring us that Gray would clear him, or leave some doubt about his behaviour, or offer some explanation that would show that, far from casually disregarding the rules he had imposed on the rest of us, he was the victim of a cruel stitch-up, a man whose wildest lockdown excess had been a mug of Horlicks in front of an old episode of Lovejoy.

On his feet, the prime minister was off into one of his rally-the-troops pitches

It was rubbish, of course. All you need to know about Gray’s findings is that she decided it would be quicker to tell us which parties the police WEREN’T investigating. Of the 16 gatherings in her report, it turns out just four aren’t the subject of a criminal probe. The parties, Gray said, were “a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time.” We had feared a whitewash, but what we got instead was quietly damning.

“It isn’t enough to say sorry,” Johnson went on. “We must look in the mirror, and we must learn.”

But learn what? “We are making changes now to the way Downing Street and the Cabinet Office are run.” Here it came, Operation Save Greased Piglet. What the nation is, it turns out, crying out for is a new Office of the Prime Minister. Aides would be reshuffled. Sunak eyed the Press Gallery nervously at this point. The prime minister’s parliamentary aide Andrew Griffith was gripping his binder so tightly it looked like it might snap. Johnson ploughed on. Codes of conduct for civil servants were going to be reviewed, presumably to check that “Don’t break the bloody law” is underlined at least twice.

“I get it,” Johnson concluded, “and I will fix it.” Although his statement showed that he really didn’t and really won’t. “I know what the issue is,” he said, to shouts of “You!” from the Labour benches. But that turns out to not to be the issue at all. The issue was, and I am not making this up, freeports. “I’ve been to one of them today which is creating tens of thousands of new jobs.” Sunak studied his lap very intently. On his feet, the prime minister was off into one of his rally-the-troops pitches. Brexit! Hospitals! Broadband!

“We have shown that we have done things that people thought were impossible,” he said. And also things that people knew were illegal, but that was all behind him. He’d said sorry, though it was not clear what for, and it was time to move on. His period of contrition had lasted three minutes and 15 seconds. Is that a record?

Keir Starmer did his best cold fury. It was a moment for gravitas, his long suit. The threshold for a police investigation, he reminded us, was “evidence of serious and flagrant breaches”. That had been met in 12 cases, including a party Johnson attended, and one in his flat. “There can be no doubt,” Starmer went on, “that the prime minister himself is now subject to criminal investigation.” Sunak too, presumably, as he was at one of the relevant parties.

People who had followed lockdown rules, the Labour leader said, “saved the lives of people they will probably never meet”. As for Johnson, Starmer said, “it’s everybody’s fault but his”. Johnson was “a man without shame” who had “damaged everything and everyone around him along the way.” Rees-Mogg looked like he might be about to vomit.

Johnson was furious, as he always is when a nerve is hit. Starmer had spoken a “tissue of nonsense”, unsupported by Gray’s report. It was bluster, badly misjudged. If any Tory MPs had been wondering how contrite their man was, they had the answer.

There was plenty more drama. The SNP’s Ian Blackford got thrown out for saying Johnson had wilfully misled Parliament. On the one hand, it was attention-seeking, but on the other hand, he was plainly correct. Theresa May was brutal: either Johnson hadn’t read the rules, or he didn’t think they applied to him. “Which was it?”

This is who he is and it is who he always was

Johnson told May, as he would tell plenty of others over the next two hours, that she should wait for the police to finish their inquiry. It is a quite extraordinary state of affairs that the prime minister of the United Kingdom should be telling us we have to wait for Scotland Yard to tell him if he attended a party in his own flat.

What did Tory MPs make of all this? How many more times were they going to believe their leader as he assured them that things weren’t what they looked like, that the cheque was in the post, that everything would be cleared up in a day or two? Some toadied up to the boss, it’s true — Caroline Johnson deserves a special mention for asking the prime minister to promise that his “laser-like focus’ on delivery wasn’t compromised — but plenty made their doubts plain.

Aaron Bell spoke for the nation, though, when he described driving for three hours in May 2020 in order to give the eulogy at his grandmother’s socially-distanced funeral. “I didn’t hug my siblings, I didn’t hug my parents,” he said. “Does the prime minister think I’m a fool?”

“No,” said Johnson. But he did. He does. This is who he is and it is who he always was.

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