The verbal gymnastics of Johnson and his apologists: what does “implicitly”mean?

Cartoon: Chris Ridell, the Observer

By David Allen Green (republished from his blog Law and Policy, with his permission and on the understanding that this does not mean he shares the politics of Shiraz):

“Implicitly” is a mischievous word, a Puck of a word.

And those who say and hear such words must be careful, else this Puck of a word can cause unexpected confusion.

It is the word of the moment in British politics.

Last week, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons:

“When I went into that garden just after 6 o’clock on 20 May 2020, to thank groups of staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later to continue working, I believed implicitly that this was a work event, but with hindsight, I should have sent everyone back inside. ”

Now what was the naughty “implicitly” doing in that sentence?

The word must be there for some purpose, as this was something carefully worded that the Prime Minister read out.

Read that sentence again without the word:

“When I went into that garden just after 6 o’clock on 20 May 2020, to thank groups of staff before going back into my office 25 minutes later to continue working, I believed that this was a work event, but with hindsight, I should have sent everyone back inside. ”

This sentence is intelligible – and had he believed it was a work event, that is all that needed to be said.

But someone added the word “implicitly”.

Why?

It is not an especially legalistic word – so, although the sentence was plainly lawyered, it is not there for a specific legal purpose – or at least not one I can identify.

But presumably it is there to change meaning from the plain “I believed” into something else, something more vague and perhaps evasive.

A Westminster/Whitehall insider told me that the use of “implicitly believed” was very much the “don’t ask, don’t tell” of workplace gatherings.

A sort of plausible ambiguity – to let you get away with things that you would know, had you considered it, would not be the case.

In this way it would be a coded synonym for ‘conveniently’.

And the word seems to matter: for it has been repeated by Number 10 and other ministers – and so it is the line to take:

Steven Swinford@Steven_SwinfordNumber 10 spokesman now issuing a blanket denial that Boris Johnson was warned about No 10 lockdown garden party in advance ‘It is untrue that the PM was warned about event in advance. He believed implicitly that this was a work event’3:36 PM · Jan 16, 2022·TweetDeck

So: the word makes a difference to meaning – and it is a word that matters so much that its use is being forced upon press officers and ministers.

Maybe it means that the Prime Minister cannot show any explicit evidence that he had that view (or expressed that view), and so assumed it.

Here is Adam Wagner, the leading authority on the coronavirus regulations.https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-2&features=eyJ0ZndfZXhwZXJpbWVudHNfY29va2llX2V4cGlyYXRpb24iOnsiYnVja2V0IjoxMjA5NjAwLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X2hvcml6b25fdHdlZXRfZW1iZWRfOTU1NSI6eyJidWNrZXQiOiJodGUiLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X3NwYWNlX2NhcmQiOnsiYnVja2V0Ijoib2ZmIiwidmVyc2lvbiI6bnVsbH19&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1481241592585502728&lang=en-gb&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fdavidallengreen.com%2F2022%2F01%2Fthe-joy-of-implicitly%2F&sessionId=9df22005a0855025fa3feb1c0c95225acd635318&theme=light&widgetsVersion=86e9194f%3A1641882287124&width=550px

Or maybe Johnson is seeking to deftly avoid any legal liability?https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-3&features=eyJ0ZndfZXhwZXJpbWVudHNfY29va2llX2V4cGlyYXRpb24iOnsiYnVja2V0IjoxMjA5NjAwLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X2hvcml6b25fdHdlZXRfZW1iZWRfOTU1NSI6eyJidWNrZXQiOiJodGUiLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X3NwYWNlX2NhcmQiOnsiYnVja2V0Ijoib2ZmIiwidmVyc2lvbiI6bnVsbH19&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1482743569614094337&lang=en-gb&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fdavidallengreen.com%2F2022%2F01%2Fthe-joy-of-implicitly%2F&sessionId=9df22005a0855025fa3feb1c0c95225acd635318&theme=light&widgetsVersion=86e9194f%3A1641882287124&width=550px

Who knows.

But what is certain is that it matters to Johnson – and that he believes in this phraseology, well, implicitly.https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-4&features=eyJ0ZndfZXhwZXJpbWVudHNfY29va2llX2V4cGlyYXRpb24iOnsiYnVja2V0IjoxMjA5NjAwLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X2hvcml6b25fdHdlZXRfZW1iZWRfOTU1NSI6eyJidWNrZXQiOiJodGUiLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X3NwYWNlX2NhcmQiOnsiYnVja2V0Ijoib2ZmIiwidmVyc2lvbiI6bnVsbH19&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1482769693710692359&lang=en-gb&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fdavidallengreen.com%2F2022%2F01%2Fthe-joy-of-implicitly%2F&sessionId=9df22005a0855025fa3feb1c0c95225acd635318&theme=light&widgetsVersion=86e9194f%3A1641882287124&width=550px

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