IT was an admission. It was an apology, of a sort. And it was nowhere near adequate.

The Prime Minister’s appearance yesterday at Question Time in the Commons at least gave an answer – one that no-one had any doubt about, though for several days it was pointlessly dodged – to the question of whether he had attended the “bring your own bottle” gathering in the gardens of Downing Street in May 2020, at the high point of lockdown restrictions.

Despite the careful, and probably legally-vetted, wording of his statement, there was some acknowledgment of personal responsibility when he said he should have told those present to return to work. There were signs that Mr Johnson understood just how angry many people were to discover that those responsible for imposing the rules had themselves ignored them, and there was even, initially, the appearance of contrition – though that was transmuted into evasion and bluster when the questions became awkward.

But none of it will wash. This sorry episode does not hinge on technicalities about what constitutes a “work event”. At the time it happened, there was no such thing. Indeed, no-one other than key workers was even supposed to be at work. No-one, for that matter, was supposed to be outside, except for exercise or essential errands, or in the company of more than one other person.


The general population, under the rules drawn up by Mr Johnson’s administration, was effectively under house arrest, a good proportion of them had had their livelihoods torn to tatters, and many faced heart-wrenching separation from loved ones. All of this almost everyone accepted with extraordinary forebearance, because they had been assured that it was essential to tackle the pandemic.

Whether politicians and civil servants were hard at work trying to tackle the crisis and develop a vaccine strategy is equally irrelevant: NHS workers were not allowed to mark breaks in their shifts with sociable drinks in the hospital car park. And there are no grounds to argue that this was a relatively unimportant matter, and that no real harm was being done – or else, what possible justification can there have been for the rules imposed on every other member of the population at the time?

Yet the rules were in place, and no amount of legalistic doubletalk about their technical application can disguise the fact that they were blithely being breached by the very people who had introduced them. Is it any wonder that those who, as wine was being drunk by officials in the rose garden behind Number 10, were unable to meet their loved ones – in the most appalling cases, even on their deathbeds – should react with outrage and cold fury to these disclosures?


Against that background, there is nothing disproportionate about the calls for Mr Johnson’s resignation. He has clearly breached the ministerial code, and on all the evidence, not for the first time. His belated apology, even on the dubious assumption that it was completely sincere, was delivered only because he was found out, and because, for once, he may have grasped that the profound anger at his behaviour is not just drummed up by opponents for political gain, or shared only by his enemies, but widely and deeply felt by the vast majority of the public.

We cannot yet tell whether this marks the end for the Prime Minister. The ultimate judge of whether breaches of the Ministerial Code merit resignation or dismissal is not Sue Gray, the civil servant leading the inquiry, but the PM himself.

In practice, that will depend on whether he obtains the indulgence of his backbenchers, many of whom have already had enough of his conduct, deception and disregard for the consequences of his actions. Given that other ministers and officials have gone for less serious failings, Mr Johnson has little reason to expect mercy.

If he survives, it will be for reasons of self-interest. He delivered a large majority, and his track record as an escape artist may even lead some to believe he can recover. It is possible, as it always is in politics, that something will happen to let this blow over.

But it should not. This episode is an absolutely damning indictment of Mr Johnson’s conduct in office. Whatever his other achievements (if there are any), it will remain an indelible stain on his character and record.

Governments are usually brought down by external events or ill-judged policy. It is hard to think of an occasion when personal flaws and unsuitability for office have been the grounds for getting rid of a prime minister.

Yet there has seldom been such an obvious example of just that.

It may be too much to expect the appropriate response from Mr Johnson, but there is no doubt what that response ought to be: shame, unqualified apology and resignation.