NEWS
25/08/2021 19:02 BST

'The Sea Was Closed' And Other Extraordinary Tory Excuses

From the people who brought you "I was testing my eye-sight".

Another day, another bizarrely-worded statement from a senior government figure.

On Wednesday, foreign secretary Dominic Raab tried to dismiss criticism of his decision to go on holiday during the Afghanistan evacuation by claiming “the sea was actually closed” at the time.

The cabinet minister has faced a backlash ever since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan on August 16, and critics are now mocking his answers to questions about his Crete holiday.

The Times reported that witnesses said they saw Raab swimming and using a paddleboard on the last day of his holiday.

Pressed on his decision to take a break, he told Sky News: “The stuff about me being lounging around on the beach all day is just nonsense. The stuff about me paddleboarding – nonsense. The sea was actually closed, it was a red notice.”

But it’s not the first time the Tory government has reached for excuses and explanations that have raised eyebrows, and Raab has form in this area.

Dominic LipinskiPA
Foreign secratary Dominic Raab faces mounting pressure over his handling of the UK's response to Afghanistan.

In 2018, Raab faced ridicule when he said he did not understand the “full extent” of how reliant the UK is on the Dover-Calais crossing as the UK was struggling to thrash out a favourable Brexit deal with Brussels. He was Brexit secretary at the time.

Apparently failing to grasp secondary school basics until into his 40s, Raab told a technology conference about the “peculiar geographic entity that is the United Kingdom” and the famously short sailing route between he country and mainland Europe.

“I hadn’t quite understood the full extent of this,” he said.

“If you look at the UK and look at how we trade in goods, we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing.

“That is one of the reasons why we have wanted to make sure we have a specific and very proximate relationship with the EU, to ensure frictionless trade at the border.”

JONATHAN BRADY via Getty Images
Dominic Cummings delivering a statement in the Rose Garden at 10 Downing Street following the news of his trip to Durham. 

Perhaps the most extraordinary justification in recent British politics will go down in legend. Where were you when Dominic Cummings admitted he had travelled to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight?

In May last year, it emerged that the PM’s top adviser had broken lockdown rules to travel hundreds of miles from London to Durham at least once with his family while the UK was living under the strictest lockdown rules – despite contracting Covid-19.

Number 10 said the first trip was to guarantee childcare for Cummings’ four-year-old son, but Cummings denied a second trip.

In a bizarre press conference, that firmly cemented Barnard Castle as a punchline for Downing Street critics, the adviser said he had travelled to the popular tourist spot whilst he was supposed to be self-isolating in order to test his eyesight.

There’s more. Just this month, Gavin Williamson said he did not remember what A-Level grades he received – despite remembering opening the envelope.

In an interview on LBC, the education secretary said his results allowed him to go to Bradford University.

“For a lad growing up in Scarborough, Bradford was the most exotic and exciting place in the whole world,” he said.

“I remember walking up to those college doors, going into my college at sixth form, getting the envelope, opening up that envelope, seeing the grades on there and feeling absolute delight.”

But pressed on what his results were, Williamson said: “I’ve forgotten, it was so long ago.”

Williamson, who received his grades 27 years ago, was only able to reveal he did not get three A*s.

Elsewhere in Boris Johnson’s cabinet, home secretary Priti Patel last year offered a carefully worded apology amid a civil service bullying row.

The prime minister stood by his cabinet minister despite an internal investigation finding her guilty of bullying in the Home Office.

It caused Sir Alex Allan, Johnson’s influential adviser on ministerial interests, to quit after his probe revealed instances of Patel “shouting and swearing” and “behaviour that can be described as bullying”, and in turn failed to meet the ministerial code.

Patel issued an “unreserved, fulsome apology” and said there were “no excuses” for what happened – but stressed that her behaviour was not “intentional”.

In a statement, she said: “I am sorry that my behaviour in the past has upset people. It has never been my intention to cause upset to anyone.”

She later told the BBC that “any upset that I’ve caused is completely unintentional and at the time, of course it says it’s in the report, that issues were not pointed out to me”.

Patel appeared to be apologising for the “upset” she has caused and not the behaviour itself – a position that follows a trend within previous remarks.

When faced with accusations that doctors were dying during the pandemic because of a lack of personal protective equipment, she said: “I’m sorry if people feel that there have been failings.” 

When she apologised in 2017 after allegations that she broke ministerial rules by holding official meetings while on “holiday” in Israel, she at first said the foreign secretary – Johnson – had known about it and then later admitted the Foreign Office was not informed. Again, the apology had caveats and emphasised how her actions could be “mis-read”.

“In hindsight, I can see how my enthusiasm to engage in this way could be mis-read, and how meetings were set up and reported in a way which did not accord with the usual procedures,” she said.

Also last year, ministers used a bizarre phrasing when admitting that Johnson’s Brexit plan broke international law.

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis said the proposals to change the operation of his own withdrawal agreement, which smoothed the UK’s departure from the EU, broke the law in a “very specific and limited way”.

During an urgent question on the plan, veteran Tory Sir Bob Neill, who chairs the Commons justice committee, told Lewis that “adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable”.

He went on: “Against that background, will he assure us that nothing that is proposed in this legislation does or potentially might breach international legal obligations or international legal arrangements that we have entered into?”

Lewis replied: “Yes this does break international law in a very specific and limited way.”

Johnson himself, in common with many politicians, has been evasive in some of his answers to questions. But ahead of his 2019 general election triumph the PM went further – avoiding an interview by hiding in a fridge.

The prime minister started the final day of election campaigning by helping load milk and orange juice bottles into a delivery vehicle in West Yorkshire.

But he was ambushed by Jonathan Swain, a reporter from ITV’s Good Morning Britain (GMB), who asked him to live up to his promise to give an interview to the programme.

One of Johnson’s aides can then be seen saying “oh for f**ks sake* while GMB co-host Susanna Reid remarks about the “look on his face”.

Johnson is then asked by Swain: “Why don’t you have five minutes? You’re live on Good Morning Britain, I’ve got Piers [Morgan] and Susanna with me.”

Johnson replied: “I’ll be with you in a minute”, before being ushered into a walk-in fridge. 

While not technically this current Tory government, an honourable mention should be made of The Daddy of all political excuses from 2013.

Coalition government environmental secretary Owen Paterson, a Tory, claimed said that “badgers have moved the goalposts” whilst announcing the culling of the animals would be extended after failing to get on top of the spread of TB in cattle. In terms of imagery, it will be hard to beat.