What is Boris Johnson actually accepting responsibility for when he says he is ‘humbled’ by Sue Gray’s report into partygate? Humility isn’t a word often used in connection with Boris Johnson, although it’s hardly valued at all in Westminster, so perhaps he is following a slightly different definition to the rest of us. Or perhaps his line that he is ‘humbled’, which he used again at his Downing Street press conference just now, was written for him which is why he delivered it with a lack of conviction.
He certainly doesn’t seem to be accepting responsibility for attending leaving parties for staff: this afternoon, he once again defended this as being an important part of leadership. Most good bosses would normally agree that it’s important for morale to show your appreciation for an outgoing member of staff. The trouble is that most good bosses were running their staff leaving dos over Zoom from their homes, in accordance with the rules that were being set out and reinforced in Downing Street press conferences (on at least one occasion one such press conference coincided with a party in another part of the building). The Prime Minister was also clear in his statement and then again in answers to questions from journalists that he wasn't responsible for those events continuing long into the night after he’d left them.
In fact, the main thing that Johnson seemed to take responsibility for was the organisational structure of Downing Street. And on that, he could point to changes which would ensure people understood the difference between working and socialising, as he put it. Those changes involved a permanent secretary for Downing Street, a new principal private secretary and a new chief of staff, along with better lines of management. He also told the press conference that he had apologised personally to the cleaning and security staff working in the building for the finding in the report that there had been ‘disrespectful and poor treatment of cleaning and security personnel.’ He added that he expected ‘anyone who behaved in that way to do the same’ and later told journalists that he had begun to make inquiries about who those staff were.
He continued to avoid any outright denials that he had asked Gray not to publish her final report at all, talking merely about how the terms of reference would have made it impossible for her not to. That is a non-denial denial, as he may have still asked the question, even if the rules didn’t permit the answer he wanted. As we have learned in recent months, Johnson finds it quite hard to understand what rules are, even when he has written them himself.
The Prime Minister's humble-not-humble tone today has suggested that he thinks most people have made up their mind one way or the other about partygate and that today’s report won't have changed that. The MPs who spoke in today’s statement will have reinforced that view: the ones who criticised him have all been doing so for a good while now, rather than there being new voices. But it is notable that most Tory MPs cleared off as soon as they could, so we didn’t get a broad view of how the party is feeling anyway. That is still to come.