Boris Johnson’s party defence shows he’ll never change his rule-breaking approach to politics – iNews

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While Keir Starmer had tested negative for Covid, Boris Johnson’s task in this High Noon PMQs was to prove he had tested negative for arrogance in the wake of the “bring your own booze” garden party revelations.
The Labour leader was back out of isolation, but with Tory MPs self-isolating from their leader (and Rishi Sunak socially distancing himself by swapping PMQs for a trip to Devon), the PM clearly knew he had to apologise unreservedly over the affair.
The risk was always that his words were more trite than contrite, and the lingering suspicion that he was only owning up to his huge error of judgement because he had been caught red-handed.
As the PM finally admitted he had personally attended the drinks party for 25 minutes, his defence was as thin as it sounded: “I believed this was a work event…With hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside”.
That particular line curdled in the air as soon as it was uttered, as Starmer, the man Johnson has ridiculed as Captain Hindsight, went for the jugular and for the first time called for his resignation.
Deploying the R-word too soon is high risk for any Leader of the Opposition, but the PM’s answer was perhaps the most telling moment in the exchange. He refused to rule out resigning, instead saying we should all wait for the Cabinet Office inquiry into the parties.
Starmer, who knows he has to convince the British public that his Downing Street would be very different on standards, was at his prosecutorial best.
His attack that Johnson was even now refusing to abide by the rules – the rules that ministers quit when they mislead Parliament or breach the ministerial code, the basic code of honour that led Matt Hancock and Allegra Stratton to quit – landed so well that Tory backbenchers could only sit in grim silence
The real problem is that once again the PM is putting the onus on others (in this case inquiry chief Sue Gray), rather than proactively accepting the consequences of his talk of taking “personal responsibility” for his own actions and those of No.10.
A cynic may feel that Johnson has only put himself at the mercy of Gray because he knows that she will not, and maybe cannot, recommend that he personally steps aside.
Her remit is to gather and then set out the facts of the various parties, not necessarily to come up with a “verdict”. If technically no rules are found to have been broken, he may think he can cling on.
But despite his sort-of apology and no matter what is in Gray’s report, for many members of the public, the lasting image of Johnson will be of him boozing in his garden while people died.
His words in the Commons really did sound like he was sorry he had been caught, rather than sorry for failing to realise his actions were a matter of personal disgrace. 
Having offered similar apologies before Christmas, the danger is the public may think they’ve heard it all before and that words are too cheap.
Several backbenchers are reluctant to trigger a vote of confidence in Johnson because of fears they would look self-indulgent at a time when the NHS front line is still struggling with the Omicron wave.
Some fear that playing politics during a national crisis is a terrible look, but others worry Johnson is the national crisis.
That underlines the Tory leadership-Covid paradox: the quicker the country moves out of the latest pandemic emergency, the more likely his leadership will be challenged.
“The frustrating thing is we are in the best place we’ve been on Covid since the pandemic started, and this happens,” one Tory who is usually loyal told me.
“I was scrupulous in not breaking the rules in that first lockdown even though my friends bent them or broke them. But Boris and No.10 were drinking in the garden? What the hell were they thinking?”
On 26 January, many MPs expect the current restrictions like working from home or mask-wearing to be ditched, yet ironically that could be a moment of maximum danger – especially as that could follow Sue Gray’s report.
Johnson will claim the removal of restrictions as proof that his Covid strategy has worked, (though critics may claim in fact it was Chris Whitty who saved the day by saying what the PM wouldn’t: reduce your social contact this Christmas).
And just as it was the public who “took back control” of Covid, they will be the ones who take back control of the Tory leadership dynamic.
The feedback from MPs’ constituents this weekend will be the most important immediate metric, as will opinion polls. But it could be the public’s verdict in the May local elections that seals Johnson’s fate.
That’s why in many ways, Starmer would probably privately prefer the PM stays put. An unpopular premier is more useful to Labour if he’s damaged goods rather than removed altogether.
But Starmer’s team also feel increasingly confident that whoever succeeds Johnson, be it Sunak or Truss, would be both tainted by his reign and would lack his campaigning skills on the stump.
Some Tory MPs don’t like the fact that Dominic Cummings, who was the one to first reveal the existence of the “boozegate” gathering, may have got his revenge as a dish served cold.
Some even think that the waning of Covid, a proper levelling-up plan, an economic bounce-back and falling inflation later this year could all make the PM a still attractive sell to voters. Yet few now stick to the line that what doesn’t kill him makes him stronger.
More importantly, many MPs know that Johnson will never change his fundamentally rule-breaking approach to life and to politics.
Famed for that photo of him suspended mid-air on an Olympic zip wire, he’s defied political gravity for so long it has been a shock to his party to see him fall to earth with an almighty bump. The No 10 parties, in all their forms, have cut his safety line for good.
All rights reserved. © 2021 Associated Newspapers Limited.

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