CONGREGATIONS are all too familiar with the first person plural. It crops up in sermons across all the church traditions. “We have all sinned.” “As our Lady told us . . .” “It’s time we sorted social care once and for all.” Unless the preacher is particularly egotistical (admittedly some are), they have wrestled with their own demons and worked out their own salvation in private. From the pulpit, therefore, there is never any doubt about what preachers mean by “we”. They mean “you”. The Queen, of course, uses “we” to mean “I”, though the individual is subsumed in the institution.
When Boris Johnson addressed the Commons on Monday afternoon on the subject of the short update released an hour earlier by Sue Gray, the civil servant who took on the task of investigating the various parties allegedly held in Downing Street and different government offices, he began his short statement in the first person singular: “I would like to make a statement . . . I want to express my deepest gratitude . . . etc.” And then: “Firstly, I want to say sorry.” At that point, however, he switched immediately to the first person plural: “Sorry for the things we simply did not get right . . . We must look at ourselves in the mirror and we must learn . . . We must learn from these events and act now.” By presenting himself as the person who would respond to Ms Gray’s criticisms with structural changes, he made it clear whom he meant by “we”. He meant “them” — as yet unnamed culprits who had let the country down while he was busy getting Brexit done, etc.
Mr Johnson has had innumerable opportunities to make this right with little harm to himself. It is even possible to imagine a way in which, earlier in the saga, with his bad-boy persona, he could have got away with accepting a fixed penalty from the police for breaking Covid regulations: “It was only ten minutes, but I utterly accept that it was wrong, and I’ve insisted that the police issue me with a fine.” The fact that he has ducked every opportunity — what Lord Turnbull, Cabinet Secretary under Tony Blair, called his “schoolboy’s ‘dog-ate-my-homework’ series of excuses” on the BBC Panorama programme on Monday — is what has caused MPs in Mr Johnson’s own party to despair of his character. They know, of course, that it suited electioneering. Paradoxically, the policy designed to distract people from Partygate, i.e. talking up the serious issues that this Government faces, has forced his colleagues to doubt whether he has the character to meet these challenges.
The general confession, whether in a modern service or the one that Mr Johnson would have grown up with at school, uses “we” freely. “We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings.” Everyone who follows the instruction to make that confession, meekly and in public, is clear that they mean “I”. Mr Johnson’s reluctance to confess has failed to turned aside the wrath and indignation against him. More sadly, it is denying him the comfort of absolution.