“I want to apologise,” Boris Johnson said. He told MPs how sorry he was that he had attended a party in Downing Street in breach of Covid rules in May 2020. The apology, however, was immediately undermined. He protested: “No 10 is a big department with the garden as an extension of the office, which has been in constant use because of the role of fresh air in stopping the virus.” Johnson then added, to the incredulity of many, that he only attended for 25 minutes to thank staff and “believed implicitly that this was a work event”. So there we have it: I’m sorry, but also I did not realise I was at a party. Was the BYOB invite, the tables set up as a bar and the reportedly rowdy atmosphere not a big enough hint?
Starmer went in hard on the apology: “After months of deceit and deception, the pathetic spectacle of a man who’s run out of road. His defence that he didn’t realise he was at a party is so ridiculous that it’s actually offensive.” The Labour leader accused Johnson of misleading parliament and breaking Covid rules, then – for the first time – called for him to “do the decent thing and resign”. He also pointed out that Matt Hancock had resigned after breaching restrictions with his sneaky snog, and Johnson said at the time that he was right to do so, while Allegra Stratton recently stepped down for merely joking about one of the rule-breaking parties.
The many (many, many) recent scandals of this government offer a useful yardstick against which to measure the latest controversy and its implications for Johnson. Unlike when Cummings made his notorious several-hundred-mile journey during lockdown, when ministers (reluctantly) went out to defend the adviser, no such closing of ranks is happening this time. There have simply been too many embarrassing wrongdoings to defend. We heard overnight how one Tory MP recommended that the party “get rid of him“, another told BBC Newsnight’s sources that it is “Goodnight Vienna” and letters are going into the 1922 committee.
Johnson is isolated, to an unprecedented extent. And, for once, he looked entirely defeated. Starmer made a strong case for his resignation, which polling by Savanta Comres and YouGov yesterday found that the public support. Johnson’s position as Tory leader relies on his ability to win, but that shine is wearing off. The consequences for Labour, however, could be bitter-sweet. Once Conservative backbenchers decide Johnson is a greater liability than an asset, that Starmer is happy to be facing an election against him, they will stick in the knives. Starmer could then be facing a fresh leadership, and whether the stink of this rule-breaking lingers around any replacement is unknown. For now, though, a clear positive: Johnson’s worst PMQs yet and Starmer’s best.