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Perhaps the most accidentally telling line of Boris Johnson’s apology and explanation in response to Sue Gray’s report came when he described recent staff movements inside Downing Street: “The whole of senior management has changed.

Except, of course, for the man at the top. And while Johnson insisted he took “full responsibility for everything that happened under my watch”, the Gray report eloquently chronicled what has been a refrain of Johnson’s political career. – the feeling of a man officially responsible, but not necessarily in charge.

For many Johnson supporters, this characteristic is presented as a strength. He is, they say, more of a chairman than a CEO, the visionary and the salesman who leaves the tedious details to diligent if less talented underlings.

This way of working was perhaps most beneficial when Johnson was mayor of London, a sometimes ceremonial role with most of the granular decisions devolved to subject-specific deputy mayors.

In the central government, things become more difficult. The series of social vignettes featured in Gray’s report portray Johnson less as a focal point of power than a kind of golden specter, guided between meetings and stumbling through parties, giving a brief speech or raising a glass in a toast. before being taken away again.

If being prime minister is like commanding a ship, the Johnson of the Gray report commands a cruise ship, whose main job is to be nice to passengers at the table.

Johnson makes a series of appearances on the report’s 60 pages, attending eight of the 15 gatherings described by Gray, but these are largely cameos, where he occasionally arrives by accident en route to his office and rarely stays long.

In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that the only event for which Johnson was fined by police, his brief birthday party in June 2020, was organized by aides and completely unknown to the Prime Minister until he was taken to the cabinet room.

He was, in the famous defense of a minister, ambushed by a cake. But at the same time, naysayers will argue that a true leader, if presented with a room loaded with sandwiches, snacks and booze in the midst of a lockdown during which social events were strictly prohibited, would have left sooner. than to join obediently.

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All of this, of course, takes place against the backdrop of Downing Street being both Johnson’s family home and workplace.

In an incident which Gray does not criticise, and which the police chose not to investigate, the Prime Minister joined officials in what Gray called a continuation of work meetings in the Downing Street garden , knocking the now-famous cheese board out of his own apartment.

This was another of Johnson’s defenses in his speech to the Commons after the report: The Downing Street complex covers 5,300 square meters over five floors and houses hundreds of staff. It is factually correct. But as Gray’s report makes clear, virtually all of the 15 events she chronicles took place in a surprisingly compact office suite that Johnson regularly passes through.

As such, the Prime Minister’s appeal to MPs that he ‘had no knowledge of the subsequent proceedings because I was simply not there, and I was as surprised and disappointed as anyone ‘, sounds like the father of a teenager telling police he didn’t realize a loud party was disrupting the street because he was in an upstairs bedroom.

As with so much of the saga, this sense of near irrelevance in Johnson’s role will be interpreted markedly differently by opposing sides of the argument.

But even for allies, the report’s breadth of detail makes this significantly harder to defend. Wine was spilled, a staff member was so drunk he was sick, a near fight took place, karaoke music was played. Emails and WhatsApp messages were exchanged between staff about ‘wine hour Friday’, a warning that social noise shouldn’t drown out a press conference and having ‘s’ is drawn” by organizing an evening around a drink.

That ultimately leaves two choices for those in Johnson’s camp. The first is that he misled the country when he said he had no knowledge of parties. The other involves Johnson being so detached, dissociated and peripheral that the office he is supposed to run has become the most covid-breaking address in England as he lay oblivious.

Neither is the ideal place for a national leader to find himself.

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