Defending the indefensible: How to clear up the Downing Street party mess
As Prime Minister refusing to confront tough questions is not an option. Much as Boris Johnson would probably like to hide away behind the Chequers razor wire, his job does not give him the chance to lie low until it all blows over.
Having already reached the conclusion that media interviews, beyond a few snatched comments while on a hospital visit, are unhelpful, Mr Johnson has tried to minimise public scrutiny. This week at Prime Minitster’s Questions we all saw (including viewers of ITV’s This Morning show which is not usually known for its focus on Westminster politics) that even an accomplished blusterer like Mr Johnson is incapable of dealing with close scrutiny on a subject where he is so evidently banged to rights.
So what should he do – and what should anyone do if placed under the spotlight with difficult questions to answer?
There is unlikely to be a magic get out of jail card which will make it go away, but there are things you clearly shouldn’t do (see Prince Andrew on Newsnight the textbook model of how not to handle things) To that end Mr Johnson’s upfront statement – while late – was a decent start.
The remarks, which had clearly been drawn up under close legal scrutiny (see also Bill Clinton on Lewinsky affair ) were a means of getting his retaliation in first and setting out his narrative: Apology, Explanation, Next Steps.
Setting aside for a moment the rights and wrongs of the situation, the strategy makes sense and would form the basis of all his subsequent answers no matter how brutal the following questions became.
He spiked one of the key issues by admitting his presence at the bring your own booze garden bash, but his apology fell short because it came across as an expression of regret at having been caught, rather than genuine remorse for doing the wrong thing.
His subsequent ‘explanation’ that he thought, although wrongly with hindsight, that it was a work event was crafty but unsuccessful. Crafty because Sue Gray – the poor woman tasked with sorting out the mess at party central – cannot know what he thought when he went into the garden and thus cannot pass judgement. But craftiness is not a good look – if the vast majority of voters see drinking in the garden as a party, then you are a fool if you don’t.
Probably wiser to simply say; there were people having drinks in the garden and I joined them, which was a mistake and it should not have happened.
Mr Johnson’s former spin doctor while he was Mayor of London, Guto Harri told Radio 5 Live this week that the key failure from a communications perspective has been losing control of the narrative.
When a seething Dominic Cummings marched out of Downing Street carrying a burning desire for revenge and a cardboard box full of Kompromat, the consequences were inevitable. That Cummings and possibly others have been allowed to dictate the steady flow of revelations is a grave mistake.
Too many people knew too much for these events to go unreported, even if the deputy editor of The Sun James Slack chose not to tell readers about his own Downing Street leaving do.
At the first whiff of trouble, the only sensible response is to find out the extent of the problem. That means a thorough audit of anything that had happened within Whitehall from March 2020 onwards that could be described as a social event in breach of lockdown rules.
The failure to do so promptly and effectively has led to the current debacle whereby the terms of Ms Gray’s inquiry are continually changing as more events come to light.
Boris Johnson gained popularity because he had charm, charisma and stuck two fingers up at people and protocols that the wider public had lost all respect for. His bungling in office and failure to implement a proper response to a serious crisis is tantamount to sticking two fingers up at all of us.