If you have ever played monopoly, you’ll know there is a certain flex in the rules – unless they’re being used against you.
Sure, it’s fine if your incarcerated opponent doesn’t collect rent when you land on their property because they’re under the mistaken belief you can’t earn money in jail. But when the tables are turned, you’ll damn well be calling in that £22 if they land on Piccadilly. At the point of discrepancy, everyone tears through the rule book trying to find a technicality to prove their point.
That he didn’t realise the full implications of the rules when he made the mistake was Boris Johnson’s defence yesterday.
No10 is technically a work setting, so when a troop of Downing Street staff gathered for BYOB drinks on May 20, 2020, it was a work meeting. And when the PM attended for 25 minutes, he was under the impression everyone was strictly talking about work. Given politicians’ insatiable obsession with talking about politics (and themselves), you could, on that basis, argue that a debate over Brexit with the in-laws was a work meeting too.
Only days ago, Johnson was unsure if he was even at said party. Now, he seems to have nailed his attendance down to the minute. But for all of those 25 minutes, he was talking about work while at work, so the fact everyone was drinking and “making the most of the lovely weather” as the invite suggested, is completely irrelevant. In other words, he dug up the rule book and let himself off on a subclause.
It was the most Boris of apologies and one familiar to anyone with toxic friendships. “I’m really very sorry if I’ve ever done anything to upset you or that was wrong by you,” someone once chimed to me. An apology so unconditional that it was completely conditional and in fact meaningless.
It’s a political tool used only to buy the Prime Minister the tiniest slivers of breathing room. He has outlasted against all odds by playing a game on the basis “it will all blow over eventually”. If he was wrong, he’s very sorry. If it looked like it’s wrong, he’s very sorry to those upset by it.
But in his view, we won’t really know if it was wrong until Sue Gray, the formidable senior civil servant known for slapping down David Cameron and George Osborne, says it was wrong. By which point, he hopes, everyone is a little less angry and willing to give him the usual benefit of the Boris. But with the threat of Omicron to the country starting to recede, Tory MPs will be emboldened and harder to distract. Johnson may have found a way to exculpate himself, but it will be a thin shield if his party finally twists the knife.