This morning Chris Philp, the digital minister (see 9.46am), and Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary (see 10.27am), have become the latest ministers to defend what Boris Johnson said about Keir Starmer and Jimmy Savile in the Commons on Monday. It is an argument that Johnson has used himself (in a TV interview on Thursday), although its first public outing came in an interview earlier that day given by James Cleverly, the Foreign Office minister.
The argument contains an element of truth, but in part it is wholly false, and in substance it is misleading.
On Monday, in response to a speech from Starmer attacking him in particularly withering and damning terms, Johnson said:
The report does absolutely nothing to substantiate the tissue of nonsense that [Starmer] has just spoken – absolutely nothing. Instead, this leader of the opposition, a former director of public prosecutions -although he spent most of his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile, as far as I can make out – chose to use this moment continually to prejudge a police inquiry.
This was obvious contentious because it implies that Starmer was involved in decisions not to prosecute Savile when he wasn’t. It has been argued that Johnson does not care anyway because even though news outlets carry reports saying this claim is wrong, for many casual listeners the mud will stick.
The No 10 clarification/justification argument contains two strands. One is false, and another is largely misleading.
1) ‘Johnson was misunderstood’
Johnson claimed last week that he was talking not about what Starmer did personally, but about “his responsibility for the organisation as a whole”. Philp this morning said that Johnson’s original comment was “capable of being misconstrued”.
But the original comment was not ambiguous. The people who understood Johnson to be implying that Starmer was personally responsible for not prosecuting Savile were not misconstruing him, but hearing him correctly. Johnson at no point said he was talking about Starmer having to apologise on behalf of an organisation he led for something for which he was not personally culpable.
If Johnson and others had argued that what he meant to say in the Commons was that the PM and Starmer were alike in having to apologise on behalf others, that might have been plausible. But, as it stands, Johnson and his allies are just being dishonest about what was originally said.
2) ‘Leaders sometimes have to apologise for mistakes by their staff for which they are not personally to blame’
This is the part of the Johnson argument that is true. Starmer did apologise for the CPS’s failings in relation to Savile, even though he was not involved, and Johnson feels that his partygate apologies come into the same category.
And it is probable that Johnson had no knowledge of some of the partygate allegations being investigated by the police.
But the Savile/partygate analogy fails on two counts.
First, Johnson is personally implicated. He seems to have attended six of the 12 events being investigated by the police on the grounds that they broke Covid regulations. He still has not admitted that he broke the rules, but he has admitted it is hard to defend at least one of the parties.
Second, even if Johnson did not attend many of the No 10 lockdown-busting parties, many people believe that he was partly responsible because he set the tone for what was allowed in the building. Staff took liberties because they were working for a boss who was cavalier with the rules. But there is no evidence that the mistakes made by the CPS in relation to Savile were in any way linked to the management culture shaped by Starmer.