On any other day, the sight of Theresa May telling Priti Patel that her Rwanda immigration environment was too hostile even for her would have been parliamentary box office. But, as it was, most eyes were on the prime minister’s Partygate apology that followed the home secretary’s statement.
It was certainly a three-line whip for the cabinet. Patel was joined by Liz Truss, Dominic Raab and Nadine Dorries nice and early in an enforced show of support. And just after 5pm, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak filed in to take centre stage. They could have been mistaken for defendants in a court were it not for the fact they had both already been found guilty.
The Convict began by saying he wanted to make a full apology. Which would have sounded more convincing if he hadn’t already made several apologies to the Commons on previous outings. Each time hoping to draw a line under whatever he had done wrong – or more importantly, been found out to have done wrong. But if practice doesn’t make perfect, it certainly makes Johnson a slightly better apologiser. In the past he has never really sounded that sorry for anything – rather just irritable that he had got himself into yet another situation where he was obliged to apologise.
Now though, he did sound a little bit sorry. Mostly for having been caught. But that was a start. He at least managed to cut out the trademark smirks. Baby steps towards true repentance and all that. And given that he’s likely to have to come to the house several more times in the future to apologise for more egregious breaches of the law, he’s still got plenty of time to sharpen up his act. Who knows, come the end he might even sound almost sincere. It’s a thought.
Not that anyone is holding their breath. Mainly because the basis of his apology is so flimsy. Saying you’re sorry for not knowing a law that you’ve been on TV countless times telling people they will be in deep shit if they break, is too feeble even for a recidivist up on a shoplifting charge at Snaresbrook crown court. It’s not about the cake. It’s not even about the booze. Though they sure as hell make it look a whole lot worse. It’s about the fact that the Convict never thought for a minute that the rules limiting social gatherings applied to him or his crew.
He understood how angry and disappointed people were, he said. And the country had deserved better from him. Nearly there, Boris. What he should have said was that the country deserved better than him. But he wanted to make it up to everyone. So much so that he wished he’d done far worse, as then there would be more to repay. At least that was the implication. No worries there then. There’s worse coming down the track and the Convict knows it. Much worse. But hopefully if he looked busy in Ukraine then the country would forgive him.
Some hope. Keir Starmer was not in the mood to forgive or forget. This was his strongest and most powerful Commons performance in months. The Tory MPs who had turned up to boost Johnson by interrupting and causing trouble fell silent. They could sense they were outclassed and outgunned. It always helps when you have the force of Good on your side.
The Convict was a joke. No one could believe a word he said. Worst of all, Johnson knew he was dishonest. Starmer was so forceful it took the Speaker a few seconds to remember to ask him to withdraw the word dishonest. Which he did.
But the damage was done. For a second the Convict had allowed himself a rare glimpse into his own soul and been revolted by what he had seen. He turned pale, not even bothering to look around in a fake display of bravado. It was a moment that, once seen, could not be unseen. Deep down Johnson knows he’s a liar and a fraud. He won’t resign because that’s not his style. But something inside him has been broken. He’s no longer funny. No longer clever. Just a pathetic nobody, desperately clinging to power.
The Labour leader then turned his attention to Sunak. The chancellor’s career was in flames. Burnt, as so many before, by flying too close to Johnson. If anything, Sunak looked even more pathetic than Johnson. The minister rendered into a glove puppet. He knows the game is up. The sooner he gets out of parliament and back to his tax haven the happier he will be. Starmer then talked of others who had obeyed the law. Even in death. So if it was all the same to Johnson, now was not the time to be deflected by Ukraine. Just resign, prime minister.
Even so, almost all Tory MPs managed to come out in the Convict’s support. But their words were meaningless. These weren’t the Tory A-listers who you would want on your side – they were the nodding donkeys. The vain and the stupid who will say almost anything that’s put in front of them. Fools like Edward Leigh and Michael Fabricant. Imagine the shame of having them on your side. Only Mark Harper had the guts to say it was time for the prime minister to take a hike.
Meanwhile opposition MPs queued up to tell Johnson enough was enough. How come he had understood the rules enough to accept Allegra Stratton’s resignation when her only crime was joking about covering up the parties? If that wasn’t an admission that even now, in the face of multiple apologies, he was still lying through his teeth. Not the Lion of Kyiv so much as the Lying of Kyiv. And what was he planning to do about the other more serious offences that were in the pipeline? Would he be coming back with yet more apologies?
Thirty-one minutes in and the Convict briefly lost it, allowing his anger to the fore. Anger at his humiliation. Then he retreated back into mumbled “sorries” and then silence. Judgment was uncomfortably close to hand.