STEPHEN GLOVER: Master escapologist Boris might wriggle free again

STEPHEN GLOVER: Tumultuous days lie ahead. But master escapologist Boris might just wriggle free once again…

Stephen Glover said Boris Johnson appeared ‘humble and contrite’ during his apology in the House of Commons

As apologies go, Boris Johnson’s offering in the House of Commons wasn’t at all a bad one. He appeared humble and contrite, and in saying sorry went much farther than erring politicians normally do.

Obviously he didn’t convince Labour or the Scot Nats, but it wasn’t his intention to do so. He was trying to persuade his own side that he hasn’t suddenly become an electoral liability.

Beyond that, he was appealing to the court of public opinion. I don’t mean hard-core Boris-lovers who will probably stick with him whatever he does. Nor am I thinking of diehard Labour supporters and sundry Boris-haters who have already made up their minds about the Prime Minister.

I have in mind the millions of people in the middle, many of whom voted Conservative in 2019. The danger is that, if they believe Mr Johnson is a serial liar on important matters, they won’t vote for him again next time.

Will he have won them over? My guess — it is obviously impossible to peer inside the minds of so many people — is that the Prime Minister has bought himself some time by his show of candour, but is very far indeed from being out of the woods.

At the centre of his confession — which, as I say, was delivered in appropriately sober and regretful tones — was a contention that many people, myself included, will find hard to swallow.

Boris Johnson apologised in the House of Commons for a party which took place in the Downing Street garden on May 20, 2020

A party did take place in the Downing Street garden on May 20, 2020. Only it hadn’t in Boris’s mind been a party but a ‘work event’ when, ‘just after six’ on that day, he wandered into the garden ‘to thank groups of staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later to continue working’.

He made himself sound rather like P. G. Wodehouse’s absent-minded and benevolent Lord Emsworth, who might have wandered out of Blandings Castle on a sunny spring evening in just such a manner and thanked estate workers in a similar kindly way.

Is it credible that Boris Johnson was unaware that his principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, had invited about a hundred people to a bring-your-own-booze party in the garden, many of whom must have been working under the Prime Minister’s nose? It is very difficult to believe.

But let us, for the moment, give Mr Johnson the benefit of the doubt on that score. Is it remotely feasible that, straying as he did into a group of 30 or 40 people enjoying themselves, he thought they were working rather than partying?

Since guests had been asked to bring booze, there must have been many bottles on tables and possibly one or two on the ground. People would have been drinking openly. I realise Boris’s No 10 is a very relaxed sort of place, but he must have realised it was a party rather than a ‘work event’.

Moreover, according to eyewitnesses, Carrie (then his fiancée) was also enjoying herself in the Downing Street garden. Was she present at the party having likewise assumed it was a ‘work event’? If so, as she is not on the staff, why was she there? The PM chose not to address this point yesterday. He didn’t mention Carrie.

It’s all codswallop, of course, and the Prime Minister must take us for idiots if he thinks we can be persuaded that he thought this was a ‘work event’. We understand perfectly well why he won’t admit it was a party.

For one thing, that would be an admission that he had broken Covid laws which he promulgated and urged us to accept. It would invite an investigation from the Metropolitan Police and possibly lead to a retrospective fine.

For another thing, he told the Commons on December 8, in response to earlier allegations of parties at No 10: ‘I have been repeatedly assured that the rules were not broken. I repeat that I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken.’

If Mr Johnson were to concede that a party did take place at No 10, he would have the boys in blue on his back and stand accused of the very serious charge that he misled the House of Commons. It has to have been a ‘work event’.

According to eyewitnesses, Carrie (then his fiancée) was also enjoying herself in the Downing Street garden. Was she present at the party having likewise assumed it was a ‘work event’? If so, as she is not on the staff, why was she there? 

Yesterday, No 10 wasn’t even prepared to say whether the Prime Minister had a glass of wine during his 25 minutes of thanking staff. They presumably calculate that, if he did, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to represent the occasion as a ‘work event’.

Will the great British public buy this unlikely story? I very much doubt it. The question is whether they will object to the attempt to pull the wool over their eyes. We may discover over the next few days.

Let me here observe how utterly hopeless Sir Keir Starmer was in the Commons. And he’s supposed to be a hotshot lawyer! Instead of probing the PM on the detail, he stuck to windy pre-packaged declarations that Boris should resign, what a disgrace he was, and so forth.

How much better it would have been if the Labour leader had asked the Prime Minister whether he knew about the party invitations (and if not, why not?).

He should have invited him to estimate how many people at the ‘work event’ were drinking alcohol. What a lucky man Boris Johnson is to have Sir Keir against him!

Will he be so fortunate with Sue Gray, the senior civil servant investigating Whitehall parties, whose forthcoming report Mr Johnson endlessly cited yesterday as a good reason for people not to jump to premature conclusions?

She is said to be a tough customer, who has ended the careers of three Cabinet ministers by her damning judgments. But it is a big thing to point the finger of blame at a Prime Minister in such a way as to precipitate his resignation.

Instead of probing the PM on the detail, Sir Keir Starmer stuck to windy pre-packaged declarations that Boris should resign, what a disgrace he was, and so forth

In the end, she may be unable to gainsay Boris’s unique perception that it wasn’t a party, even if she accepts the plain evidence — as she surely must — that it was.

This could be the loophole through which the master escapologist once again slides away. We’ll see.

What we can say with confidence is that Boris will continue to wriggle and squirm like a large, slippery fish caught in too small a net. He may be finally hauled in after a terrific to-do, but it will be quite a struggle.

What is practically certain, I think, is that if he survives in the short to medium term, he won’t again enjoy the confidence of Tory MPs as once he did. They can’t ignore the feelings of constituents who don’t appreciate being taken for fools.

And then there is Dominic Cummings. Who can say what further discreditable stories about Boris his vengeful former chief adviser is still hoarding? I doubt he has finished plotting his erstwhile master’s downfall.

Tumultuous days and weeks lie ahead. I can’t yet see the endgame. I do mourn that a prime ministership which promised so much for this country should have been brought low by careless acts and rash, unnecessary lies.

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