Perhaps the most telling line of Boris Johnson’s apologies-meets-statement in response to the Sue Gray report came as he outlined the recent staff moves at Downing Street: “All senior management has changed.”
Except, of course, for the man at the top. And while Johnson insisted on “taking full responsibility for everything that happened under my supervision,” the Gray Report eloquently chronicled what was a refrain of Johnson’s political career — the feeling of a man officially in charge, but not necessarily in control.
For many Johnson supporters, this trait is portrayed as a strength. He is, they argue, chairman rather than chief executive, the visionary and salesman who leaves tedious details to industrious if less talented subordinates.
This way of working was perhaps most beneficial when Johnson was Mayor of London, a sometimes ceremonial role in which the bulk of granular decision-making was delegated to specialist deputy mayors.
In central government, things are getting more difficult. The series of social vignettes in Gray’s account depicts Johnson less as a central point of power and more as a sort of gilded specter, trotted between meetings and stumbling across parties, delivering a brief speech or raising a glass toast before being led away again.
If being Prime Minister is running a ship, the Johnson of the Gray report is in charge of a cruise ship whose main job is being friendly to passengers at the dinner table.
Johnson appears several times throughout the report’s 60 pages and attends eight of the 15 gatherings Gray describes, but these are mostly cameos, where he sometimes happens to arrive en route to his office and rarely stays long.
In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that the only event Johnson was fined by police for, his brief birthday celebration in June 2020, was organized by aides and was completely unknown to the Prime Minister until he was taken to the Cabinet Room became.
He was, in the famous defense of a minister, attacked by cakes. But at the same time, opponents will argue that if a true leader had been presented with a room full of sandwiches and snacks amid a lockdown during which social events were strictly forbidden, he would have left rather than meekly joining in.
All of this, of course, takes place against the background that Downing Street is both the home and workplace of Johnson’s family.
In an incident which Gray has not criticized and which police have not investigated, the Prime Minister joined officers in what Gray called the continuation of the Downing Street garden work meetings, bringing down the now-famous cheeseboard from his own flat.
This was another of Johnson’s defenses in his Commons speech after the report: The Downing Street complex covers 5,300 square meters over five floors and houses hundreds of employees. That is factually correct. But as Gray’s account makes clear, virtually all of the 15 events she chronicles took place in a surprisingly compact row of offices that Johnson regularly walks through.
So the prime minister’s appeal to MPs that he was “not aware of any subsequent proceedings simply because I wasn’t there and I was as surprised and disappointed as everyone else” is similar to the father-of-a-teen who tells police he was didn’t notice a loud party disturbing the street because he was in an upstairs bedroom.
As with so many things in the saga, this sense of Johnson’s almost irrelevant role is interpreted in markedly different ways by the opposing sides of the argument.
But even for allies, the report’s sheer level of detail makes it far more difficult to defend. Wine was spilled, a staff member got so drunk he was sick, there was a near fight, karaoke music was played. Emails and WhatsApp messages were exchanged between staff about “wine time on Friday”, a warning that social noise should not be drowned out at a press conference and that he “got away with holding a drinks party”.
This ultimately leaves two choices for those in Johnson’s camp. One is that he misled the country by saying he knew nothing about parties. The other implies that Johnson is so distant, dissociated and peripheral that the office he is said to run has become the address most violating Covid rules while he is unaware.
Neither is the ideal place for a national leader to find himself.