Boris Johnson's flimsy defence of Downing Street party is falling apart

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday January 12, 2022. - Credit: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Who among us has not walked out of the back door, seen 30-40 people stood there clutching bottles of booze and thought: “Oh, this must be a work event"? 

Or is it just the prime minister? 

Boris Johnson’s car crash appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday threw petrol on a fire that had been smouldering for months. 

Revelations about golden wallpaper and expensive furnishings came first. Before the more damaging stories about top Tories breaching Covid rules hit the headlines. 

You don’t need me to tell you that these stories have accelerated, before reaching a crescendo with the news that the prime minister attended an event in the garden of No 10 Downing Street on May 20, 2020.

Staff had been invited to “bring your own booze” to the event by one of the prime minister’s top team. 

On that same day, the rest of the country was in lockdown.

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On that same day, in Suffolk and Norfolk, eight people with Covid-19 died. 

On that same day, many more had recently been bereaved by the cruel virus.

On that same day, the vast majority of people were staying away from loved ones in order to keep them safe. 

But the prime minister has long had a reputation for slipping his way out of situations that would have ended the careers of ordinary politicians. 

Whether it was being sacked for falsehoods, some of the racist and homophobic language he has used in newspaper columns over the years, or even seeming to arrange to have a journalist beaten up — he has gotten away with it. 

Now, it looks like his luck may be running out. 

Polls show the Conservatives rapidly falling in popularity.

Top Tories are starting to call the prime minister to step aside.  

MPs have gone to ground and refused to state their views in public. 

Members of the cabinet normally effusive in their support for the prime minister have dragged their heels in backing him on social media. 

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, even made sure to be a long way away — 173 miles away, in Ilfracombe, to be precise — while the prime minister mounted his desperate rear-guard action in PMQs. 

Is everyone just waiting for the dust to clear, or are they realising that Boris Johnson is perhaps not the man you want captaining the ship in a crisis? 

Even his flimsy defence — that he believed the garden gathering to have been a work event — seems based mainly on keeping his teflon reputation intact, rather than doing what is right or decent. 

One leading human rights lawyer who has spent the pandemic trying to explain the increasingly complicated coronavirus restrictions to the public, Adam Wagner, wrote about the idea that the PM’s apology had been carefully crafted to protect him. And only him. 

The barrister took to Twitter to say: “The Johnson apology was carefully worded and obviously lawyered. He said that he attended because he 'believed implicitly that this was a work event', that ‘with hindsight’ he should have sent everyone back inside, and ‘technically’ it could be said to fall within the guidance. 

“The apology – when read carefully – was to the millions of people who 'wouldn’t see it in that way’, but because he also said technically it could be said to fall within the guidance, he is implicitly saying the millions of people are wrong in their interpretation. 

“This was only what he thought the event was — so [the] defence is a personal one only and leaves open the possibility the event was something else without him realising. 

“This is very much about his personal liability – he is implicitly denying he knew what the event was, had seen the email or had anything to do with it. Because here’s the key point: on the wording of email (‘bring your own booze’) this couldn’t technically have been a work event.” 

This is a captain OK with seeing his ship go down — so long as he keeps his own head above water. 

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