“Sorry seems to be the hardest word” (Elton John)

Elton John at Ischl – Source: Thomas Waleczka on Wikimedia

Boris Johnson has finally apologised – “I am deeply sorry for every life that has been lost and I take full responsibility for everything that the Government has done”. This ‘apology’ was triggered by the landmark moment last week when the UK Covid death toll topped 100,000, a number bigger than the country’s civilian toll in World War II and twice the number killed in the 1940-41 Blitz bombing campaign.

The internet is now buzzing with the question “But is he truly, deeply sorry?” Johnson’s supporters are content to think so whereas his critics are inclined to regard it as disingenuous ‘weasel words’. But I think the rationale for Johnson’s apology is actually complex – 

Firstly, given the haggard, bewildered whey-face he has been sporting lately, one motive for the apology may be that he is actually sorry. But in a manner befitting Johnson, he’s like a smallish boy, who spent weeks tempting his friend to walk the entire length of a tightrope strung between two trees even though he was repeatedly warned it was dangerous. When his friend ends up in hospital with a life shortening spine injury and both sets of parents are staring silently at the floor of the hospital corridor because the enormity of the incident is too huge to speak of – the boy is sorry. He knows that he messed about for ages ignoring the adult talk of consequences and that reality has now hit. His immature mind can’t quite grasp the true gravitas of the situation but he’s finally had a boyish epiphany that something very bad has happened and he was centrally involved in it.

It has taken Johnson 11 months to reach this point. At the start of the pandemic he was shaking hands and joking about ‘last gasps’ with Trumpian blindness to the seriousness of the situation. Some organizations made their own decision to lock down as Johnson clearly wasn’t on the case. So strong was his libertarian contempt for the theft of our “ancient, inalienable right” (Johnson) to do as we damn well please that, when he did finally lock down on 23 March, he couldn’t bring himself to make the restrictions stronger than merely advisory.

When he was eventually pressured into accepting more stringent regulations, he couldn’t stick to them. Instead the ensuing months became a carousel of ignored scientific advice, overpromises, risky treats and an Eton Mess of tiers followed by an Xmas train crash of half measures laced with U turns. It wasn’t until Johnson could see the big number coming down the track towards him in January 2021 that he fully, but privately, grasped ‘what he had done’.

Secondly, being Johnson, the genuine but juvenile remorse just described inevitably conflicted with his inability to accept failure. So he qualified the apology and contradicted himself in the process – he claimed to be “responsible” and “deeply sorry” but in the same breath announced that “We truly did everything we could” which is to imply that actually he is not responsible after all because one cannot be held responsible if you could not have done more. So, thus far, we have an apology which is genuine, but juvenile and also irresolute.

Thirdly, the apology was given because it was commanded by the situation –  it was ‘called for’ in the same way that, as you stand with your neighbour surveying the wreckage caused by your accidentally destroying his house with the digger you borrowed, it would simply be churlish not to apologise. This apology doesn’t entail any emotional backing. It is simply required by the facts, in this case, the smoking ruins of our landmark death toll. 

Fourthly, the apology is, of course, also a piece of Johnsonian political strategy. Johnson can talk, deal, bribe, blackmail, gaslight or lie his way out of pretty much anything – a Bullingdon approach to political governance that he has exercised for his entire premiership.  But he senses that he can no longer push the pointing finger aside. When the UKs Covid death toll was similar to that of other countries he could say ‘we are doing as well as anyone else’. When it crept above, he could appeal to, e.g. the new variant that apparently took us by surprise. But now it has reached the salutary, near world beating milestone of 100,000 deaths he knows that he no longer has any wriggle room and that the public, the opposition and the scientists are now pouring over his litany of pandemic cockups at full volume.

So Johnson is now in a special kind of purgatory. He has watched with helpless foreboding in the last few weeks as the country headed inexorably towards this landmark death toll. As the terrible magic number crept closer, he knew it was the one thing he could not dodge. He was trapped in the cruel spotlight of an incontrovertible numerical fact. And now he is fretting. The country cannot be ‘moved on’ because the landmark number has not only been reached but continually breached by over a thousand more deaths per day.

This predicament is excruciating for Johnson – he feels the nation’s explosion of wrath and he can barely control his Main Stream Media. He is desperately impatient for this vote losing phase to be past tense but he is stuck in it for now. The landmark death toll also forces him to recognise that it is too late for redemption. It is a point from which he can’t go back and convincingly gloss the story of his ‘pandemic management’. All he can do is lamely ‘welcome an inquiry’ whilst privately hoping that it will take so long to convene that when it finally arrives it will have lost its more important teeth.  So Johnson’s predicament here suggests that, fourthly, he is apologising because he recognizes that if he is to have any hope of saving his political skin, then strategically, now, of all times, is the moment for contrition. The ‘apology’, in this sense, is a desperate bid for self preservation. 

I’ve suggested that Johnson’s apology is a complex mix of juvenile, unwilling, somewhat incredulous remorse plus formality, strategic manoeuvring and desperation. In this case, the answer to the question raised above of whether he is ‘truly, deeply sorry’ is almost certainly ‘no’.