It was an apology only a man like Boris Johnson could give.
“I’m sorry.” And then, minutes later, a gleeful reference to a false online far-right conspiracy theory.
Boris Johnson appalled Tory MPs, defied the advice of his aides and struck members of his cabinet dumb – Dominic Raab and Nadine Dorries have had particularly painful media rounds – by bringing up a baseless claim about Keir Starmer’s involvement in the decision not to prosecute the child molester Jimmy Savile, while responding to a denunciation of Partygate.
It’s a false theory that has been circulating in the murkier gutters of the internet for some time now, despite Keir Starmer, the former director of public prosecutions, not being involved in the Savile case and indeed commissioning a review that was highly critical of the way the Crown Prosecution Service handled it.
Nevertheless, Johnson announced it with gusto, revealing not just the most sinister side of his character – the casual ease with which he lies – but also a truth finally dawning on Tory MPs: that he won’t change.
As I argued on the latest episode of the New Statesman podcast, Johnson demonstrated what we have always known about his political style. He cannot resist descending into snark, dog whistle and smears, even when his future depends on his contrition. Even when MPs are lining up to express their grave dismay at his behaviour, there is never a blow too low (he appeared to accuse the Labour frontbench of taking recreational drugs at one point) or a platitude too irrelevant (“get Brexit done!” he cried at another) for Johnson.
Utterly misjudging the tone of the chamber, this style also exposed his tin ear for occasion and inability even to feign sincerity: both vital qualities in a leader seeking to make amends. Dismissive of concerns, impatient with process, he will never embody the changes of culture he has promised to his party.