I want to apologise. I know that millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months.
“I know the anguish they have been through – unable to mourn their relatives, unable to live their lives as they want or to do the things they love.
For the second time in recent week, the prime minister has been forced to do the thing that no politician – and certainly no prime minister – ever wants to do: say sorry. Last December, he did exactly the same thing in an attempt to draw the sting from the disclosure of a video, in which his senior aide, Allegra Stratton was filmed joking with other officials about a party in the Downing Street media centre. This time, the allegations are more serious, and the jeopardy facing Johnson greater. It showed on his ashen face as he began delivering his statement to a packed and silent House of Commons.
“I know the rage they feel with me and with the government I lead when they think in Downing Street itself the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules. And though I cannot anticipate the conclusions of the current inquiry, I have learned enough to know there were things we simply did not get right and I must take responsibility.
Johnson’s critics – in his own party and on the opposition benches have certainly contributed to, and reflected, the rage Johnson described. But they are unlikely to believe his claim that he has now “learned enough to know” that mistakes were made. In recent days it has become clear that the 20 May party in 2020 raised alarm bells for some No 10 staff at the time. They were worried then about the dissonance between what the government was asking people to do, and how people in Whitehall were conducting themselves. And though he said he didn’t want to anticipate the conclusions of the current inquiry by the senior civil servant Sue Gray, that’s exactly what he was doing in the hope, perhaps, an apology now will help to dampen the criticism coming his way.
“No 10 is a big department with a garden as an extension of the office which has been in constant use because of the role of fresh air in stopping the virus.
“When I went into that garden just after six on May 20 2020, to thank groups of staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later to continue working, I believed implicitly that this was a work event.
“With hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside. I should have found some other way to thank them.
“I should have recognised that even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance, there are millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way, people who have suffered terribly, people who were forbidden from meeting loved ones at all inside or outside, and to them and to this house I offer my heartfelt apologies.
This was the key part of the statement – Johnson’s admission that he had been at the 20 May gathering, and his explanation of what he thought he was going on. To howls of derision from opposition MPs, Johnson said he had only been in the garden for 25 minutes, and that he believed “implicitly that this was a work event”. Given the invitation to the gathering made explicit reference to it being a chance for a socially distanced drink, and that the more than 100 people who were asked to attend were told to “bring your own booze”, it is hard to reconcile Johnson’s benign description with what was actually happening in his private garden. The questions about what the prime minister knew of the event beforehand remain.
- Did he know his principal private secretary had invited people into his back garden?
- Did he really think the 30-40 people who went that evening were at a work meeting? And why didn’t he stop it?
- Did he have a drink at the event?
- If it was a work event, how often do No 10 staff drink at work events?
- If he did not know about the event in advance, why did he arrive at 6pm, the exact time at which it began?