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Leader comment: Grievous unto us — the Prime Minister’s apology

22 April 2022

IT WAS just a slight linguistic change. At the time that Sue Gray’s report on Covid-lawbreaking in Downing Street and Whitehall was originally supposed to be published, the British public was widely expecting Boris Johnson to be replaced by a better Prime Minister. On Tuesday, Boris Johnson told MPs that the British public had “a right to expect better of their Prime Minister” . . . and that was why he was staying. Mr Johnson’s performance in the Commons — bookending his apology with references to the war in Ukraine — was commendable or shameless, depending on one’s political affiliation. He was either putting the relatively minor matter of a “gathering” in Downing Street into its proper perspective in relation to a European war; or he was using the suffering of the Ukrainians as a smokescreen for his personal failings. Either way, his repeated formula — wholehearted apology/now getting on with the job — got him safely through most of the questions, although the defence was at its thinnest when used in response to the Conservative MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, David Simmonds. Mr Simmonds is married to an NHS doctor and asked Mr Johnson what steps he had in mind to restore the “moral authority” of the Government. The best way to do that, Mr Johnson said, was to “deliver on the promises we made to the British people, and that is what we are doing”. It was not the sort of reply to give Mr Simmonds full confidence in the Prime Minister in advance of the vote to refer the Prime Minister to a formal investigation by the Commons privileges committee.

And then there’s Rwanda. Mr Johnson apparently told his backbenchers on Tuesday evening that senior clergy had spent more time at Easter condemning the plan than they had criticising President Putin. Had that even been true, and it was not, it was perhaps because even now they expected better of their own Government than such a tawdry, untested, and, to all neutral observers, unworkable scheme for offloading the UK’s responsibility for asylum-seekers. The Home Secretary rounded on critics for not suggesting an alternative. How about the investment in an efficient and compassionate means of processing asylum-seekers which bishops and others have been calling for in the Lords for years — backed up by a genuine desire to care for the world’s most vulnerable people?

Mr Johnson’s message on Tuesday was that he had more important things to focus on than the “partygate” scandal. He has: the reputation of national politics and the preservation of the rule of law. Steve Baker MP was right in suggesting that people would accept a humble apology if backed up by signs of repentance. He was wrong in believing that the damage done by the Downing Street culture of privilege and contempt was arrested on Tuesday afternoon. Repentance is more than apologising, then moving on to next business.

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