Can Boris Johnson’s linguistic manoeuvring keep him in Downing Street?

For anyone who has been closely following ministerial media rounds this week, the same slightly anomalous-sounding word has cropped up time and again in discussions of Boris Johnson’s alleged lockdown-flouting social activities: “implicitly”.

The same word has also been used by Johnson’s official spokesperson and, most crucially, the prime minister himself when apologising in the Commons for attending a drinks event in the No 10 garden on 20 May 2020: “I believed implicitly that this was a work event.”

What’s going on? The understanding is that Downing Street – most likely with legal advice – has imposed strict messaging on how ministers discuss the subject, in the hope Johnson can face the findings of a report into the various parties without it being proved that he lied.

Key to this is the somewhat thin and slippery political plank Johnson is attempting to walk along in accepting he went to the 20 May event but that he also did not realise it was a party – he popped into what is also his own private back garden, chatted to colleagues and returned inside.

The use of “implicitly” ties into this narrative of a hard-working prime minister used to seeing colleagues regularly meet outside for work in the May sunshine and automatically assuming this post-6pm gathering, even with bring-your-own-booze drinks, must be the same thing.

Legal observers like barrister and Covid rules expert Adam Wagner have noted that other elements of Johnson’s apology and other No 10 language have been similarly cautious, such as the idea it “technically” fell within then-guidance, and that he only realised “with retrospect” that the event was a bad idea.

Amid speculation that dozens of Tory MPs have lost faith in Johnson, all this linguistic manoeuvring might be too late to keep him in Downing Street, but it could protect him in the event of something else – a future police investigation.

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