PM offers “ridiculous” defence and tells the public: ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’

© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
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“His defence that he didn’t realise he was at a party is so ridiculous that it’s actually offensive to the British public,” Keir Starmer declared at PMQs, before calling on the Prime Minister to “do the decent thing and resign”. Ridiculous is exactly the right word. Boris Johnson did not totally stick to the line that he could not comment until the investigation into Downing Street parties is over, nor did he come clean and apologise, but instead settled on something in between: ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’. It was perhaps the most insulting of all the options available to him. And we know why. If it were not obvious enough, the Prime Minister reportedly told MPs in the tea room that he thinks “it’s not his fault and he’s bravely taking the blame for others”. Leading this country is a man who cannot bear taking responsibility, either in his personal or professional life.

Johnson has admitted attending the “bring your own booze” party that he insists he thought was a “work event”. He was not sent the invitation email and did not see it, lobby journalists were told. Did he bring a bottle? How often does the Prime Minister drink at work? These were the questions put to his press secretary yesterday but no answers came because these are matters for Sue Gray’s review. We must wait for her to “establish the facts”. Which facts might they be? Now that Johnson has said he joined the “work event” – the one with long tables laden with booze and food – the only answers in demand can be provided by the PM himself. Presumably, he is waiting for something, anything, to change his dire situation between now and the report, or for the report to enable only some civil servants to be blamed and to allow Johnson to struggle on until the time is right to go.

As ever, the public is being patronised, asked to believe that the Prime Minister cannot tell the difference between a party and a work event, not that this was an exemption anyway, which can only lead us to conclude that either he has not understood the government’s own Covid rules throughout the pandemic or he is lying. Adding fuel to this massive fire, Jacob Rees-Mogg has been out defending Johnson by insulting his detractors. Already it was an extraordinary situation for Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross to call for the PM’s resignation. For Rees-Mogg to then brand Ross “a lightweight figure” on telly is stunning from the Conservative and Unionist Party. Just as the Sue Gray line from earlier in the week could not be maintained, this chaos is surely unsustainable.

If Johnson is on his way out, as several Tory MPs have now publicly agreed must happen now and many more privately say should be the case in the near future, potential replacements should not be able to emerge from these scandals unscathed. With Liz Truss little-known among the public despite being Foreign Secretary and the longest-serving minister, Labour has focused on Rishi Sunak. He missed PMQs yesterday and has only posted a carefully worded tweet since Johnson’s ‘apology’. But the opposition has been keen to point out that Sunak only lives next door, and also that he has gone missing – the “Vanishing Chancellor” – at a time when the cost-of-living crisis is intensifying.

Labour has been on top form in recent days. When Starmer was first elected as leader, it was promised that he and Angela Rayner would make a strong team, bringing different qualities to the table. This idea has been suppressed by tensions between the two teams, but has been forced into fruition now and proven to be an effective combination. Meanwhile, Rachel Reeves this week offered a punchy performance at the despatch box, where the Shadow Chancellor consistently shines. The party has been on top of the key issues of the day so far in 2022: with a ten-point gap in the latest poll, long may this continue. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.

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