Opinion | Britain’s Boris Johnson Made a Terrible Mistake: He Apologized

It worked, just: Mr. Johnson squeaked home, with two-fifths of his party voting against him. That seemed to be a stalemate, likely to stretch through the summer. Then came the events of the past week.

It’s worth reflecting on why an apology should seem to have changed the calculus so much. In truth, the decision to punish moral transgressions is often less straightforward than we like to admit. Scandals tend to break not at the point people “find out” about bad behavior — stories of Mr. Pincher’s misconduct had long been circling in Westminster, for example — but when they think a majority of others judge it to be wrong. People, after all, rarely make ethical judgments in a vacuum.

In politics, where support can be counted to the number, that perhaps holds especially true. Offered in the hope of mitigating damage, apologies often instead open the floodgates. By confirming you did something wrong, you give your accusers permission to pursue retribution. It puts beyond doubt that they are correct to judge you. That’s not to say politicians are wrong to apologize when they have made a mistake, of course. It’s just that, in politics, it tends not to go well.

This is not a new phenomenon even if, in these brazen times, the political cost of apology seems to have risen. Richard Nixon, for example, sealed his tarnished reputation when he apologized for his actions. The political career of a British deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, never recovered after he apologized for breaking an election pledge. And the apologies offered by Al Franken when he was accused of sexual harassment are widely regarded to have weakened his position.

Mr. Johnson seemed, more than any of his predecessors, to grasp this fact. His knack for not apologizing was remarkable. His breezy denials induced a sort of cognitive dissonance in the minds of those accusing him — Was there some fact they had missed? Were they going mad? Was he? — and permitted supporters to make their own denials, too. In recent months, it produced a sort of moral vacuum in Britain’s government, in which nobody seemed to have the power to hold the prime minister to account.

No longer. While the exact details of Mr. Johnson’s future are unclear — a second no-confidence vote could come within days, and there is even speculation he would seek to call an election rather than be ousted by colleagues — the outline is unmistakable. Now that he’s lost the support of some of his most loyal supporters, his grasp on the leadership of the party and the country is weakening fast. It’s presumably no consolation that he has no one to blame but himself.

Source: NYT > Top Stories

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